The Glass Menagerie

Tennessee Williams
Young Vic
(2010)

Glass Menagerie publicity photo

Following his sensational revival of The Beauty Queen of Leenane, Joe Hill-Gibbins turns his attention back a few generations to St Louis in 1936.

There are, though, parallels between events in Martin McDonough's contemporary Connemara and Tennessee Williams' America. In both cases, within isolated families, dominant mothers torment devoted spinster daughters, although in different ways.

Deborah Findlay makes Amanda Wingfield into a monster, trying to live vicariously through her children, following the exit of her handsome husband long before.

This manipulative mother lives in a fantasy, like so many Williams creations, worshipping not her maker but the past and the cult of the gentleman caller.

As a result, her put-upon son Tom seethes and drinks, waiting for the chance to follow his father's example and fly the coop.

The only thing tying Leo Bill's character, who also narrates and observes from a decade later, is guilt about the fate of his crippled sister.

In the person of Sinéad Matthews, oddly while blonde on the programme cover, brunette on stage but indisputably right on top of her game, Laura seems like a fledgling chick so badly wounded that one might be tempted to put it out of its misery.

The family, which owes much to the writer's own, is mired in claustrophobic disappointment from which there seems no escape. Even so, Amanda maintains a deluded dream that a gentleman caller will arrive and sweep her lonely daughter away from her much-loved glass menagerie and down the aisle.

Hope arrives in the person of Tom's workmate Jim, a former school colleague of the Wingfield siblings, on whom Laura had a crush.

Miss Findlay goes into gushing Southern overdrive as Amanda regresses into a vamp and attempts to charm and impress the handsome young man, while Laura is besotted, as she has been ever since they sat together in singing classes.

Kyle Soller's charming, sensitive Jim is clearly kind but that might not be enough to redeem the Wingfields, who must overcome delusion, inferiority complexes and unworldliness before launching into society.

Joe Hill-Gibbins takes some bold decisions, creating an unusual production that is deeply poignant at its best but occasionally a little more eccentric than is strictly necessary.

The setting by Jeremy Herbert on two levels is deliberately disjointed, walls removed from the dowdy Wingfield apartment, with audiences sitting on two sides of a diamond.

The disconcerting effect is compounded by music that often eschews melody for eerie effect, some of it played on a dozen water-filled wine glasses.

Ultimately, this production peaks in a scene where Sinéad Matthews as Laura first glimpses an unexpected chance of happiness and then collapses when Laura realises that this is not her destiny.

The Glass Menagerie can be a painful play to watch but is leavened with comedy, making for an engrossing 2¾ hours.

Playing until 1 January

Reviewer: Philip Fisher