Review: The Glass Menagerie, Manchester Royal Exchange

Published in The Independent on September 8, 2022

At last, Atri Banerjee’s production of Tennessee Williams’s play sees the light: it was due to be staged in spring 2020. While the cast and team have re-assembled, Banerjee and designer Rosanna Vize completely reworked their plans, to take into account what we’ve all been through since then.

It’s true that this portrait of an isolated, claustrophobic family – stuck in a small St Louis flat but each really living within their own dream world – now has a freshly poignant tug on the old heartstrings. But the biggest change to this production appears to be the highly literal reminder of how the promise of a brighter life remains just out of reach for these characters: spinning above the action is a huge neon sign reading ‘PARADISE’. As well as an unignorable reminder of unfulfilled hope, it is also a concrete reference to the Paradise Dance Hall across the street – its music and illumination offering distraction for lives “without any change or adventure”. Lighting designer Lee Curran uses the sign, too, to re-enforce emotional states; it glows or dims, spinning faster or slower, in agitation, boredom or honeyed memory.

Set in 1937 and based on Williams’s own youth, The Glass Menagerie is declared in an introduction to be a “memory play”: the son, Tom, looks back on life with a painfully shy, disabled sister Laura and their overbearing, Southern Belle mother Amanda. Everyone is stifled. Tom wants to be a poet, but works in a warehouse; Amanda is obsessed with the lost glories of her youth and with finding a “gentleman caller” to marry Laura, while Laura retreats into old records and tending to her collection of tiny glass animals.

In this confident, stylish production, Banerjee runs with Tom’s offer that, because this is a memory play, “it is dimly lighted, it is sentimental, it is not realistic. In memory, everything seems to happen to music. That explains the fiddle in the wings.” Out goes the naturalistic apartment with a fire escape; instead, a ring of squint-to-see-’em glass figurines sit next to small speakers playing a murmuring underscore of strings (composed by Giles Thomas). In modern clothes – Laura boasts a Molly Goddard-style neon net dress – the characters circle the space, often walking backwards as if through those memories.

Rhiannon Clements is gorgeously tender as Laura, but also has spirit. She seems stuck in teenage self-consciousness: she gets moodily frustrated with her mother, and is so mortified at having thrown up at her business studies class that she’s too embarrassed to go back. But when she talks about walking all over town alone, you register some independent adventurousness.

There’s a pathos to the casting of Amanda: Geraldine Somerville made her debut on this stage as Laura in 1989; now she returns as the matriarch. The weight of Amanda’s own tragedy doesn’t always land, but Somerville delivers her cloying, delusional performance of Southern manners, all fluttering and fluting, and brings out the wince-inducing comedy of the text. As does the brilliant Joshua James, who makes Tom withering and acerbic, newly minting many lines as laugh-out-loud funny. Add Eloka Ivo’s sexy heat and careless flirtiness as Jim, the longed-for gentleman caller, and it all adds up to a crackling production – casting a new, neon light on Williams’s play.

‘The Glass Menagerie’ is at the Royal Exchange, Manchester until 8 October

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