Review: The Glass Menagerie

Zoe Barnes 11 October 2018

★★★

The Glass Menagerie is Tennessee Williams’ most autobiographical play and it is no surprise that such a sweet and tenderly heartbreaking story proves tempting to revive. That being said, given it is more understated than Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and less explosive than A Streetcar Named Desire, it can prove trickier to stage. This production of The Glass Menagerie, directed by Megan Harding, is infuriatingly inferior to the sum of its parts.

The decision to not use the entire foreground of the stage for the bulk of the play is a considerable mistake. The dining area is backed into the left corner and as this is the setting for the more static scenes, this staging leaves the audience feeling estranged from the proceedings. This was presumably to allow for the monologues bookending the action to be physically separated from the greater narrative. Unfortunately, the effect is to confine the actors quite significantly, creating an artificial, emotional gulf between them and their audience, a distance they greatly struggled to overcome.

Tom is played capably by Bilal Hasna, who is likeable in his role, and able to express with some ability the deep internal conflicts present in the character. If, at times, he seems a little too affable, it does not make his performance any less watchable and his opening and closing monologues are spoken with the gravitas they require. The actors prove talented but in need of direction, especially since it seemed that Harding’s vision involved not trusting her cast enough to allow them to carry the emotional lows of the play. Instead, the production repeatedly resorted to sentimental and self-indulgent backing music. If the actors had been brought forwards, if they had been allowed to connect with their audience throughout, their expressions would have been more pronounced and there would have been no need to attempt such heavy-handed emotional manipulation.

The lighting (by Emily Brailsford and Theo Heymann) is largely successful, used to best effect perhaps during those moments situated on the fire escape, allowing for the actors to come out of the shadows. These scenes are enjoyable and the use of enclosed space works well. The moments between Tom and Amanda (Kim Alexander) are remarkably tender as they muse, looking up at the moon. There is also an effective lack of lighting during an earlier fight, light coming through the gaps in the curtains as Laura listens from the next room, which was clever and allowed the insults being used to take precedence over the physical nature of a fight.

Sadly, many of the more humorous lines were lost. Amanda is an almost larger-than-life role, spurring the greater narrative on, and yet in this production she ended up sounding shrill as entire lines disappeared in a flurry of speech and certain words were tripped over, a combination of accent and speed proving too much to juggle. Alexander is certainly entertaining and energetic but perhaps in need of sharper direction.

Initially intriguing, Ellie Gaunt unfurls her characterisation of Laura with great talent, displaying a quiet intensity and a vulnerability that is subtle and poignant. She and Leo Benedict’s Jim end up carrying the play, the second half of which is much more successfully staged than the first, providing the intimacy that had been lacking. Benedict brings a different energy to the production, finding his light as soon as he enters the stage and doing so with great confidence. During the scene between Laura and Jim, it is noteworthy that they are audibly clearer in their speech and more expressive, while also being understated, allowing the unspoken to weigh heavily in a manner both touching and quietly devastating. The fact that they do this while predominantly sitting down, and by a more sombre light than the rest of the production, is a testament to their charisma, chemistry and flair.

The Glass Menagerie is not a bad production and there are scenes which make it well worth seeing, but it haphazardly struggles to reach the heights demanded by the script and stronger moments often only serve to highlight general weaknesses. Still, the characters are portrayed sensitively, the production is aesthetically interesting and the script is a thought-provoking masterpiece. Flawed as it is, there are far worse ways to spend an evening.