The Glass Menagerie (Duke of York’s Theatre)

Posted: June 1, 2022 in Theatre
Photo: Johan Persson

Writer: Tennessee Williams

Director: Jeremy Herrin


Last seen in the West End as recently as 2017 at this same theatre, Tennessee Williams’ semi-autobiographical play, The Glass Menagerie seems to have become elevated to a place alongside the writer’s better known and most frequently performed works. A study of how family ties draw in and repel, the play embraces themes that resonate widely and it includes a larger-than-life central female character who is equally as fascinating as other Williams creations, such as Maggie “the cat” and Blanche DuBois.

The play, Williams’ first success, premiered in 1944 and is set in 1930s depression era America. The Wingfields, abandoned by their patriarch 16 years earlier, have an impoverished lifestyle and Amanda, now in middle age, yearns for bygone days while still nurturing her two grown children, Laura and the younger Tom, who is forced to work in a menial job to support the family.

Director Jeremy Herrin breaks with custom by casting two actors to play Tom, a character who we take to be based on Williams himself, at different ages. Paul Hilton is the older version, narrating the play as he looks back on his family life with perhaps faltering memory, torn between feelings of relief and guilt for his escape. Tom Glynn-Carney is the rebellious Tom in his early 20s, suffocated by natural affection and his duty as the breadwinner, while finding nightly refuge in trips to the movies and longing to become a poet. This separation of the character enhances a sense of distance between past and present, without obscuring the writer’s essential point that none of us can ever break free completely from our roots.

Amy Adams is a memorable Amanda, defiantly proud and still sprightly as she dons a ball gown, saved from her glory days as a Southern belle, in readiness for the arrival of a now rare gentleman caller. “I know all about the tyranny of women” she declares and, showing no trace of malevolence, she becomes a monster, crossing the line between caring for her offspring and controlling them. Amanda refuses to let go of the past, recalling that she once attracted 17 gentleman callers in a single day, thereby demeaning her daughter who has none in any normal day. Adams brings out the strength and the sadness of a woman who is in denial about  the present and deluded about her children’s futures, specifically the prospects of marrying off crippled and introverted Laura and keeping restless Tom on his leash.

Lizzie Annis is a childlike 24-year-old Laura, her shyness reinforced by her mother’s domination. She is overwhelmed by the gentleman caller, Tom’s work friend Jim O’Connor (a smooth talking Victor Alli). Their scene together, taking place during a power failure, should be pivotal, but it feels slightly overlong and laboured in this production.

Laura’s treasured glass menagerie becomes Williams’ metaphors for family and illusion, both of them fragile and inanimate. It gains prominence in Vicki Mortimer’s set design of the Wingfield’s shabby St Louis apartment; unfortunately, the writer’s direction that a memory play should be dimly lit is at times taken a little too literally by lighting designer Paule Constable.

A reflective and melancholy piece, The Glass Menagerie has no fireworks and contains none of the salacious themes that would become a Williams trademark in his later masterpieces. Herrin’s unspectacular yet beautifully acted revival captures the play’s tone fittingly throughout and its status as a classic of American theatre remains undiminished.

Performance date: 31 May 2022

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