Review - The Glass Menagerie (Duke of York's Theatre)

Having begun its journey at the American Repertory Theatre in 2013, transferred to Broadway and received Tony Award success, then crossed the pond last summer to entertain audiences at the Edinburgh International Festival, John Tiffany’s acclaimed production of Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie has finally arrived in London’s West End.

Kate O'Flynn as Laura
Photo credit - Johan Persson
It's no wonder The Glass Menagerie is considered by many to be Williams' greatest achievement as a playwright. The emotionally shattering memory play perfectly balances humour, intrigue, heartbreak and desire as it tells the story of a family in tatters, trying desperately to thrive despite their multitude of hindrances. 

Based on Williams himself, Tom Wingfield's desire for creativity and freedom repels him from his family, and his sister Laura, living with a limp as a result of childhood illness, is a fragile and isolated creature living inside her own world. The products of depression era America, both siblings are dreamers in their own ways, at odds with their woebegone homeland. 

Watching over her forlorn family is Amanda Wingfield, an erstwhile Southern Belle who hides a multitude of pains and regrets behind a bright, comely smile. Struggling to eek out a living on Tom's warehouse salary and the pittance Amanda earns by selling magazines over the phone to her acquaintances, the Wingfield family's plight is a serious one. Despite Amanda's attempts to disguise their troubles, both emotional and monetary, the truth is always looming over them like the portrait of Mr Wingfield, the absent husband, which hangs in the family apartment. 
The cast of The Glass Menagerie
Photo credit - Johan Persson
Making her West End debut, the exquisite Cherry Jones is a force to be reckoned with as the domineering matriarch of the Wingfield family. Her exuberance and gaiety flickers on and off throughout the show, occasionally revealing a glimpse of the anxiety which lies underneath her well rehearsed charm. Meanwhile Michael Esper is engaging as Tom Wingfield. Balancing a multitude of conflicting tormenting emotions, it's clear he's not just a drunkard blindly stumbling into his absent father's footsteps, but rather a young man desperate to escape an oppressive existence, menial job and soulless town. Both actors do excellent jobs of making their characters sympathetic, while maintaining their individual complexities.

However, it is Kate O'Flynn who undoubtedly steals the show as mawkish Laura. The endearing gawkiness which Amanda Wingfield does her best to erase is perfectly calculated in O'Flynn's performance. An unconventional yet apt comparison to the mournfulness of Laura's emotional arc would be watching a child let go of a balloon in slow motion. The tragic, heartbreaking inevitability of her fate is almost too much to bear. She shines especially brightly in act two, which centres around Laura's encounter with a gentleman caller. Brian J. Smith's overly confident yet kind hearted Jim O'Connor is the perfect foil for Laura, and the tenderness radiated from the bittersweet couple is enough to move anyone to tears.

Just as Tom offers the audience 'truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion' in his opening monologue, this perfectly crafted production captures the fantastical, dreamlike quality of The Glass Menagerie, and amplifies it tenfold. 1930s Missouri is brought to vivid life through Bob Crowley's set design. The Wingfield family's apartment feels small and humble, and along with the iconic fire escape, a pool of dark water which surrounds their hexagonal apartment on all sides epitomises the confinement each character struggles with throughout the play. 

The striking set design is coupled with gorgeous lighting by Natasha Katz. Wistfully delivered narration is lit in cool blue, and muggy everyday St Louis is lit like a faded photograph. However, at night the sky is enchanted with glimmering stars, reflected in the water around the Wingfield apartment so it almost appears to float in the night sky. 

There is an awful lot to admire about John Tiffany's beguiling production of The Glass Menagerie. Watching it is like ascending a staircase in the dark. Gut wrenching at every turn. As ennui is faultlessly contorted into enrapture it becomes abundantly clear that this show is nothing short of wondrous. In every sense. 

Visit theglassmenagerie.co.uk for more information about this production