The Glass Menagerie

011 RET The Glass Menagerie -L-R Eloka Ivo(Jim),Rhiannon Clements(Laura)&Geraldine Somerville(Amanda)- Image Marc Brenner

Review of The Glass Menagerie at Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester.

The Glass Menagerie was described by Tennessee Williams as a ‘memory play’. Which, as Tom, the play’s narrator explains, means that audiences can expect it to be non-realistic, powered by poetic licence, and a home to “truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion”.

Such a piece invites an imaginative approach, and director Atri Banerjee and designer Rosanna Vize conjure up a bold and radical interpretation. Williams’ heated and claustrophobic family drama is played out within a dream-like space – cool, sparse, and stripped back.

The stage is dominated by an illuminated sign with the word PARADISE referencing the name of the dance hall across the street from the family’s apartment, but also spelling out the characters’ hopes for a better life. Those 8 big letters are ever present, dimly glowing or burning bright, but always out of reach.

As the drama unfolds in the Wingfield household, the production floats freely between worlds, both of its time and piercingly not. The language and references within Williams’ text locate the action within its historical context. However, production choices such as modern clothing, an 80s Walkman, and even the sound of Whitney Houston’s voice serve to emphasise the more universal resonance of the characters’ experiences and the play’s themes.

Despite her good intentions, Amanda Wingfield’s efforts to secure a comfortable future for her two children only seem to make their lives more miserable. Her son Tom is dissatisfied with his job in a warehouse, and her daughter Laura is painfully withdrawn. A plan to secure a husband for Laura is Amanda’s current obsession.

Strikingly, in a move away from more traditional interpretations, Rhiannon Clements’ Laura seems incapacitated more by social anxiety and emotional trauma than anything physical. Her struggles feel rooted in the impacts of society’s response to the way she looks, rather than her actual physical disability.

Geraldine Somerville’s Amanda is similarly finely drawn. When frustrated, her trembling southern tones may occasionally teeter towards ear-piercing, but she is never overblown. Her constant advice and interference, however infuriating, feel well-intentioned. She may have worn down Tom and Laura’s patience with her tales of life as a popular young woman in Blue Mountain, but those memories are an understandable comfort blanket in tough times.

Joshua James smoothly navigates the tricky shifts in time experienced by Tom as protagonist and narrator – haunted by his past one minute and then slap bang in the middle of it the next. His fraught interactions with Somerville’s Amanda offer some of the show’s best moments. After spectacularly blowing his top in the middle of an almighty (and hugely entertaining) row with his mother, he suddenly appears lost, as if startled awake by a bad dream.

As the unwitting pawn in Amanda Wingfield’s machinations, Eloka Ivo puts the gentle man into gentleman caller Jim, radiating charm but also approaching his interactions with Laura with care and attention.

As well as designer Vize, Banerjee has assembled a crack creative team. The result is a show as heavy on mood as it is memory. Music is almost constantly present – cinematic in scope, it is more soundtrack than sound design. Giles Thomas’s compositions often seem to be in an embrace with the text, heightening an emotion or deepening an ache. While Lee Curran’s subtly shifting lighting design is quietly magical.

Props are rarely used – with the audience left to imagine the presence of a candelabra or high school yearbook when necessary. There are though telling visual flourishes in Vize’s designs. When Tom gifts a magician’s scarf to his sister, its rainbow-flag-colours hint at the true nature of his nocturnal adventures. Vases packed with the abundant bouquets of Amanda’s much-mythologised youth surround the stage in the second half, symbolically overshadowing her daughter’s collection of fragile glass animals.

Audaciously, there is even a fantasy sequence, with a sustained burst of joy quickly exposed as manufactured illusion – a collectively experienced crushed dream.

Despite the production’s transformative approach to the play, it brings an incredible clarity to the storytelling, If, at times, the pacing echoes the spoken rhythms of the Southern States and takes its own sweet time, the overall result is space for the text to breathe and room for the characters to sharpen into focus. An unexpectedly rich seam of humour is also mined to full effect.

Praise be for Atri Banerjee. With his atmospheric production of Kes at Bolton Octagon in March, and now this exquisite reinvigoration of The Glass Menagerie at the Royal Exchange, he has injected some much-needed adventurousness into the Greater Manchester theatre scene this year – creating intelligent and risk-taking work that raises the bar for what we should expect to experience locally.

Royal Exchange.

Performance seen on 7 September 2022.

The Glass Menagerie runs at the Royal Exchange from 2 September to 8 October 2022.

Ticket prices – there are a limited number of tickets at £7 for Under 30s across performances, on Monday nights all tickets are £12, and banquette seats (which go on sale on the day of each performance ) are £10.

Images by Marc Brenner

03 RET The Glass Menagerie - Joshua James (Tom) - Image Marc Brenner

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