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The Glass Menagerie

Tennessee Williams
Arcola Theatre and Watford Palace Theatre
Arcola Theatre (Studio 1)
to

The destruction of the gentrified Southern society of the United States left many impoverished, shipwrecked in a world in which they no longer belonged.

Tennessee Williams’s magnificent play The Glass Menagerie takes us back to one such family, living in a cramped apartment house in Saint Louis 1937, a time when the “middle class of America was matriculating in a school for the blind…. having their fingers pressed forcibly down on the fiery Braille alphabet of a dissolving economy”.

It’s the affectionate memory of Amanda Wingfield’s (Lesley Ewen) son Tom, shaped in part by guilt at having left his sister Laura (Naima Swaleh) behind. What happens is naturalistic, but heightened by fine poetic language and images.

Rebecca Brower’s imaginative set conjures up a distinctive urban America, with characters arriving and departing the house via an elaborate fire escape and external area festooned with washing lines. Occasionally we hear music from a nearby dance hall, the name of that hall in a later scene appearing in lights above the stage.

There are, in the quieter moments of this production, some very moving scenes. In particular, there is the gentle conversation of Laura with her “gentleman caller” Jim O’Connor (Charlie Maher) as they sit by candlelight, fleetingly becoming friends. And I defy anyone not to be moved by Michael Abubakar’s final speech as Tom, remembering the world he left behind and the sister he misses.

But the director Femi Elufowoju Jr makes some unusual decisions with this production. The most publicised is the casting of black actors to play the Wingfield family while retaining a white actor for the character of Jim.

There will be a few who will argue that the mother says many things that imply a Southern privileged background that would be improbable for an African-American. The director disagrees, even including a quote in the programme that claims there were black people pre-Civil War “who owned slaves”. That’s a debate I should have with him another time, because, despite his reasoning, the decision is a good one. Theatre should look more like the world we live in, so let's have more representation by black actors. This play can be played without a specifically racial aspect to the plot. With a few minor deletions from the text, it can be watched colour blind.

However, the director makes another decision that risks derailing the entire show. He doesn’t just have the mother speak in a grand romanticised style, reflective of her claimed background amongst the Southern gentry, (which she does generally well) but has her accompany everything she says with such a visual flailing of arms and movements of the body that, when I wasn’t distracted by this, I feared she might fly out of the building.

Apart from making her seem to be overacting a part rather than inhabiting the character, it tended to remove the sympathy the writer intending us to feel for someone hampered by the social position of women.

And if Femi handled the quieter moments well, he seemed unable to transition the cast to any of the heated arguments without sending them all into the stratosphere.

This is an uneven production that is uncertain what it wants to say and why, but all the same has good moments which are worth seeing.

Keith Mckenna