In 1930s St. Louis an ageing former Southern belle tries to keep her family together in some semblance of graciousness despite her adult son's resentment of his menial job and desire to escape, and her adult daughter's crippling shyness and inability to cope.
Mother asks son to find a boyfriend - a Gentleman Caller - for his sister, and the friend from work he brings to dinner proves indeed one of Nature's instinctive gentlemen, but unable to fill the role he has been cast in. Son goes off to have a life, forever haunted by the guilt of deserting those he left behind.
The first hint that director Joe Hill-Gibbins doesn't quite get this play comes as Leo Bill as Tom delivers the evocative opening monologue and doesn't even make a token attempt at a Southern accent. Deborah Findlay as mother Amanda does manage a non-specific Southern sound, but Sinead Matthews acts and sounds more New York Jewish than Southern.
There is never any sense of family here, and you feel that not only have these three characters never met each other before, but they've never come within 2000 miles of each other.
Following the pattern of Bill's opening monologue, which is meant to lure us gently into the dream world of the play, all three actors race madly through dialogue that wants to be savoured in the mouth and ear, playing as if this were Clifford Odets or even David Mamet rather than Williams.
Meanwhile, in a play about a physically crippled girl, director Hill-Gibbins and designer Jeremy Herbert have built a multi-level stage that serves no logical or dramatic function other than to make the poor actress limp up and down constantly; and on a thrust stage, with the audience all around, the director too often plants actors in one spot with their backs to too many people or a piece of furniture between them and the viewers.
Still, Tennessee Williams is too great a writer to be defeated by directorial errors like this, and the playwright gradually wrestles the play back from the director.
Deborah Findlay nicely and sympathetically captures Amanda's frantic end-of-her-tether quality, her 'jonquils' aria is as beautiful and absurd as the playwright could wish, and the scenes in which she half-flirts with her daughter's ostensible date capture exactly the right balance of the grotesque and the glimpse of the gracious beauty Amanda must have been in her youth.
The Gentleman Caller scene, in which the guest's inherent kindness draws Laura out of her shell and lets us briefly hope for a happy ending, is one of the most perfectly written scenes in all of world drama. I have never seen it fail, and it works all its magic here, despite some clumsy staging.
Kyle Soller briefly steals the play as every Gentleman Caller before him has, letting us see and love a callow and somewhat foolish young man who is far more sensitive and generous than even he realises.
And by the time we reach Tom's closing monologue, even more poetic and evocative than the opening, not even Leo Bill's incongruous accent and delivery can break the spell of the playwright's words.
Every production of The Glass Menagerie I have ever seen was better than this one. But the play is just too good, and ultimately too indestructible, to miss.
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- Glass Meangerie - Young Vic 2010