John Tiffany is having a right run of success. Not content with dominating the Olivier Awards nominations with his production of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, he’s also brought his award-winning version of Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie to London. Already having very successful runs on Broadway and at Edinburgh International Festival, it’s clear that the producers are hoping to emulate here the response it received elsewhere.
Certainly in terms of accolades, it’s already having an impact – last week it was announced that it has been nominated for a total of seven nominations at the Olivier Awards, including one for director Tiffany and one each for three of the four cast members. But is it worth the praise?
For anyone unfamiliar, The Glass Menagerie looks at the relationship between a mother, Amanda Wingfield (Cherry Jones), and her two children. Delivered through the memories of her son Tom (Michael Esper), the play explores the tensions between the three of them. Laura (Kate O’Flynn) suffered an illness as a child that has left her with a limp and inferiority complex. She has become obsessed with a menagerie of glass figurines, and entirely removed herself from normal society – much to the dismay of Amanda who wants nothing more than for her to find a husband.
Tom has a fragile relationship with his mother and struggles to tolerate her obsessions with his sister’s life. He longs to be a poet but is stuck working in a shoe warehouse, and so escapes his life by going to the movies. The final character is the gentleman caller (Brian J. Smith), a friend of Tom’s who he brings over for his mother to set up with his sister.
The play has become a bit of a staple on the professional stage, with frequent revivals each trying to bring something new. In fact, in the time it’s taken for this production to come over to the UK, a new revival has set up shop on Broadway with Sally Field playing Amanda. There’s no doubt of its popularity (spurred on by its place on numerous school and university syllabuses) but I have to admit that I’m not a massive fan of Williams’s text. It’s a solid story, and captures the social values of a specific moment in time very well which allows us to empathise with the characters. But the language isn’t always natural, and there were moments throughout when the clunky dialogue removed me from the drama. Few question Williams’s place in the dramatic cannon, but as my first experience of his work I was left wondering slightly what the fuss is about.
What can’t be questioned is the talent in the production itself. Jones, who has been with the production throughout its numerous runs, seems as vibrant as ever. She’s emphatic and bold, and manages to very successful convey Amanda’s drive; a commanding presence that deep down is the product of the society and relationships around her. Esper is strong and boyish but does need to pick an accent and stick with it.
However, the surprises of the night for me were Kate O’Flynn and Brian J. Smith. Both were incredibly touching – O’Flynn is shy and unsure, fighting her inner self, and Smith a confident love interest who eeks out Laura’s demons. The two together make for great viewing, and their conversation in the second act is the highlight of the play.
Despite my reservations on the text, Tiffany delivers an incredible production. Balancing modern staging with traditional dress, he highlights the more emotional moments of the show with visual cues. The pace is slowed down to add emphasis to a character’s expression or a backward glance, and it’s very effective. Combined with a subtle sound design by Paul Arditti, the tone of the piece is relatively dark as productions of the play go (or so I’m led to believe) – it’s a tone that’s becoming a signature of Tiffany’s work, and it’s applied with a light hand here so as not to overload the text itself.
Bob Crowley (also nominated for an Olivier Award) continues with that theming. His designs for the set are at their core quite traditional – wooden flooring, traditional chairs and tables make up the majority of the playing space. But surrounding that is an imposing fire escape, and even more unusually a black lagoon. Crowley never quite shows us what lies beyond the walls of the apartment – in the surrounding water we’re shown tiny fairy lights that represent Laura’s menagerie, but the world beyond, and the world that Tom escapes to remains a mystery.
The dialogue in the play may not be to my taste, but it’s a solid story, and it’s in the hands of some very talented individuals. Tiffany once again proves why he’s becoming the go-to director in the West End, while the cast do a tremendous job.
The Glass Menagerie is running at Duke of York’s Theatre until 29th April 2017. Tickets are available from the ATG website here although it’s worth doing a hunt for deals on this one.
And the view…
Royal Circle, Row D, Seat 11. I’m never a massive fan of the royal circle because it often feels quite removed (being both quite far back and with a circle above it). However, for the amazing price of £32.50 this was an absolute bargain. Seats were comfy (comfy enough for the French lady in front to fall asleep) even if they did have limited legroom.