'The Glass Menagerie' review – Amy Adams leads a touching but excessively gentle revival

Marianka Swain
Marianka Swain

The big draw of this revival of Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie is Hollywood star Amy Adams making her West End debut. In fact, this is only the second professional theatre credit for the six-time Academy Award nominee, who previously played the Baker’s Wife in Sondheim’s Into the Woods at New York’s open-air Delacorte Theater.

She takes on the iconic role of Amanda Wingfield, based on Williams’s own formidable, faded Southern Belle mother in the playwright’s semi-autobiographical memory play. Jeremy Herrin’s production stresses that aspect of the writer shaping and inhabiting his own remembrances by splitting the role of Tom between two actors: one younger version within the story, one older Tom to narrate, comment and roam the edges of the action like a restless phantom.

Herrin also takes to heart Williams’s words that the play is “dimly lighted” and sentimental, not realistic. Vicki Mortimer’s design places the titular glass menagerie in a large display case, otherwise props are starkly minimal, and Paule Constable’s lighting is morose and murky. The stage is dwarfed by a screen featuring projected images, principally one of the family’s missing father.

However, the actors are left rather stranded by this bare-bones approach. It’s a set-up that might work better in a more intimate venue, but isn’t terribly well suited to a West End house. It’s not as creatively radical as John Tiffany’s gorgeously intense, dreamlike version, which inhabited this theatre a few years ago, yet presents challenges to the cast — and to a squinting audience.

Adams, who is young for the role, is also surprisingly understated in her performance. Amanda doesn’t have to be played as a gorgon, however she is usually a larger-than-life character. Instead, a soft-voiced Adams gives us a vulnerable but heroically determined single mother – a much more generous reading, and one with some genuinely touching moments.

Instead of dominating Tom, she drives him slowly mad with her incessant twittering, fluttering and needling, sheathed in the honeyed faux-courtesy of her debutante youth. Adams has a light touch with the later comedy of Amanda attempting to recapture that youth, girlishly wafting the skirt of her frilled cotillion gown and repeating the word “jonquils” into nonsense.

However, it completely unbalances the play. Her furiously frustrated son, who feels both trapped and guilty because of his longing to escape, just doesn’t have the same opposing force. It makes Tom Glynn-Carney’s fuming Tom seem mean-spirited: simply another man who will abandon them. Even if you read it as self-recrimination in memory, it’s too much. Meanwhile Paul Hilton, as the older Tom, delivers Williams’s text with thoughtful clarity, but the splitting of the role never yields anything revelatory.

The best moments come in that climactic scene between Tom’s sister and her “gentleman caller”. Lizzie Annis, an actress with cerebral palsy, makes a phenomenal stage debut as Laura, giving her a rich inner life and the frightened reflexes of a startled deer.

When the equally excellent Victor Alli, as former high school star Jim, turns his attention on her, preaching his gospel of how change is possible in this world of progress, a light seems to glow within her – only to be brutally snuffed out. It’s all the more effective for Alli imbuing Jim with an innate kindness. He’s not cruel, only horribly careless.

It’s also a buoyant performance that fills the theatre, a vigour missing elsewhere in Herrin’s excessively gentle production – which, in trying to avoid melodrama, mutes the conflict altogether. Like Laura’s precious glass unicorn, it has moments of beauty but feels too fragile for this world – one wrong move and it will all shatter.

The Glass Menagerie is at the Duke of York's Theatre to 27 August. Book The Glass Menagerie tickets on London Theatre.

Photo credit: Amy Adams in The Glass Menagerie (Photo by Johan Persson)

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