The Glass Menagerie

Tennessee Williams
Royal Exchange Theatre
Royal Exchange Theatre

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Eloka Ivo (Jim) ,Rhiannon Clements (Laura) & Geraldine Somerville (Amanda) Credit: Marc Brenner
Geraldine Somerville (Amanda) Credit: Marc Brenner
Joshua James (Tom) Credit: Marc Brenner
Rhiannon Clements (Laura) Credit: Marc Brenner
Eloka Ivo (Jim) Credit: Marc Brenner
Joshua James (Tom) & Rhiannon Clements (Laura) Credit: Marc Brenner
Geraldine Somerville (Amanda) & Rhiannon Clements (Laura) Credit: Marc Brenner

After his wonderful updating of classic British comedy Hobson's Choice in 2019, director Atri Banerjee has turned to a classic of the American theatre that a few in the audience would have seen once or twice before on this same stage (the last starred Brenda Blethyn in 2008), but not looking quite like this.

This is still Tennessee Williams's semi-autobiographical story about Tom Wingfield (Joshua James)—a frustrated poet working in a warehouse who 'goes to the movies' nearly every night, which may be a euphemism—and his oppressive mother Amanda (Geraldine Somerville), who constantly harks back to when she used to get lots of 'gentleman callers' when she was young and who now wishes Tom to find gentleman callers for her painfully shy, disabled daughter Laura (Rhiannon Clements). The gentleman he invites to dinner is Jim O'Connor (Eloka Ivo).

Designer Rosanna Vize has given the floor of the in-the-round stage a glossy white finish, in the middle of which is a huge neon-style sign that reads "Paradise" (the name of the dance hall opposite) on a thick, black pole that rotates over the heads of the actors most of the time, gently underscored by Giles Thomas's subtle but constant musical backing. While the opening conversation is spoken as though across the dinner table, the actors sit around the stage facing the audience rather than each other and don't carry out any of the actions that their dialogue suggests they are doing. It feels like they're doing the concert version of the play.

As narrator Tom makes clear from the start, this is a memory play, and, as memory is imperfect, it isn't likely to be completely accurate. Williams toys with the audience's expectations of naturalism, but Banerjee dispenses with them completely, delivering the dialogue but never the visual image that goes with it to emphasise that dream-like quality of digging through Tom's mind. When it starts, the pace is unvaryingly slow and, with the lack of engagement between the characters, feels emotionally very flat.

This would get a bit monotonous for the 2 hour 40 running time, but after a while, there are scenes where characters look at one another and provide some human contact. They still don't act out what they are speaking, the costumes are modernish dress (maybe '80s or '90s) and the few props aren't always literal—when Laura is listening to her father's victrola, she puts on the distinctive orange-foamed headphones of an old cassette Walkman playing Whitney Houston's "One Moment In Time"—except for the tiny glass animals, which seem to be as described, as far as I could see from the balcony.

The minimalism of the production is lifted, however, by some effective performances. Somerville's Amanda is frustrating and often embarrassing to her children, but you understand her motives. Clements's Laura, just as described by Jim, has a disability but one that can easily be missed, and others don't notice it anything like as much as she believes them to, although she recovers from her shyness towards Jim remarkably quickly. Ivo is a very warm and jolly Jim who delivers perfectly both the motivational words and the disappointment of not being able to fulfil expectations to Laura.

If you are expecting the heat and the passion of the Deep South, you will be disappointed. The humour, however, does come through, although there were quite a few times when there were big laughs and I had no idea why—though that could be just a press night audience. But despite the slow pace and the restrained emotions, the quality of the performances kept my attention to the end, even if there were times when I wished the actors had the opportunity to really let rip.

Reviewer: David Chadderton