Memory hangs over this production and play like a foggy mist, from audiences who have seen the classic 1944 drama in various forms to the performers who are recreating this specific production in the West End for the first time, but it takes on a new meaning in this smooth and finely crafted revival that lets you discover it with new eyes, ears and heart.
“I am the opposite of a stage magician” states the character of Tom as his memory comes into focus and the characters literally come out of the set and into being. “He gives you illusion that has the appearance of truth. I give you truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion.”
The beauty of John Tiffany's production, now in London following a Broadway, Boston and Edinburgh run, is that we're constantly aware of the balance between illusion and reality yet never in an overly forced or crudely artificial manner. From Natasha Katz' sensitive lighting design that uses soft focus and a slight Vaseline-on-the-lens effect to Nico Muhly's music and Paul Arditti's sound design that fades in and out like a misremembered thought, Tiffany suspends this cruel and symbolic drama so that it occupies space somewhere between the mind and the heart. Bob Crowley's expressionistic set sheds the clichéd trappings that can often haunt a Williams production, instead the room balances as if suspended in space against a black abyss and a perspective fire escape extending to nowhere, as lights surround and reflect the simple glass figures back at the characters.
Williams' skill at dramatising the American condition within a single room has perhaps never felt more relevant. The outsider, the stranger and those who struggle against what is perceived as normal are amplified and brutally realised and the domesticity manages to feel relevant yet shockingly universal. Part autobiography, the play is like a scrapbook memoir that pieces together elements of Tom's life, in particular his relationship with his mother and sister that can both exist within the walls of the drama itself as well as extend into a character study of his future artistic and personal life.
Cherry Jones delivers a performance that feels so naturally bedded-in that it could almost be an extension of herself, yet there's a specificity and freshness in her delivery that makes every line, manner and gesture feel perfectly positioned. She adopts a genteel and almost beautiful physical persona in the second act that unlocks this troubled and desperate character in an entirely transfixing new way, shouldering control and domination of her domestic setting against her own inner fractured fragility on which the drama balances. Her experience in the role only enhances her command of both character and text and she helps root the production with a natural authority that makes her performance somewhat definitive.
She's matched by an equally compelling set of performances and whilst I found Michael Esper's Tom a little forced, it was only due to the strength and complexity of those around him. Kate O'Flynn achieves a tragic simplicity in Laura that extends with a soft desperation that makes your heart feel as vulnerable as the single glass unicorn, teetering on the edge and asking to be smashed into a million pieces. Mild mannered, understated and constantly devastating her scene with Brian J. Smith's Gentleman Caller displays some of the finest acting I have seen in a long while. Smith's charm never over-exudes, but when he picks up Laura and kisses her you find yourself melting in his arms and hurting not only for her condition but for the frailty of her spirit.
The Glass Menagerie is a production that's as clear and delicate as glass itself. Acting choices are always astute, succinct and punishingly real, yet the moments of comedy are allowed to shine through and create pathos to these beautifully written and expertly realised characters. Williams may play with misremembered thoughts and evoke a soft-focus but this production and its fine set of performances will lodge in your mind and soul for years to come.
The Glass Menagerie Tickets are on sale until 29 April 2017
What the Press Said...
"Casts a greater, more shiver-making spell than most."
Dominic Cavendish for The Telegraph
"Director Ann Ryan's candlelit production of John webster's 'The White Devil' at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, is the perfect setting for the play about deceit, treachery and revenge..."
Ben Dowell for The Radio Times