The Theatreguide.London Review
'Yes, I have tricks in my pocket, I have things up my sleeve. But I am the very opposite of a stage magician. He gives you illusion that has the appearance of truth. I give you truth in the pleasing disguise of illusion.'
The opening speech of Tennessee Williams' first success sets the tone for what may be the most poetic and dreamlike play in the American repertoire. And this new production, despite a few wrong steps (about which more later), captures the play's beauty, warmth and humour.
In a small apartment in 1930s St. Louis, faded Southern belle Amanda tries to make a home for her grown children. Tom is a stock clerk who dreams of adventure and escape, while Laura, crippled by a slight limp and an almost terminal shyness, sits at home dreamily playing with her collection of glass animals.
At Amanda's instigation, Tom brings a friend from work home to dinner, with the plan of pairing him off with Laura. But Jim turns out to be the boy she had a crush on back in high school . . . .
The play is a recognition that there are some people too fragile or 'different' to survive in the real world, and the expression of the wish that there might be some protected place for them, like the botanical hothouse where Laura sometimes spends her days.
(In that same opening speech Williams has Tom admit to 'a poet's love of symbolism', and that hothouse is just one of many unforced but evocative images that fill and enrich the play.)
Like almost any serious drama in the West End today, this revival is driven by the appearance of a film star, in this case Jessica Lange, giving a very generous and unflashy performance as Amanda.
Lange captures the painful complexity of a character who, like Blanche DuBois and Maggie the Cat who will follow her, sees her struggle to retain a sense of beauty and elegance turning her hard and coarse, and still shows us that, even at her most interfering and demanding, this woman is driven by a love for her children.
The subtlety and depth of Lange's performance really shines forth in the second act, when Amanda, trying to be gracious and entertaining to her daughter's first Gentleman Caller, makes herself ridiculous, brave, tragic and beautiful all at the same time.
As Tom, Ed Stoppard is a little too stolid and unpoetic for my taste, but I cannot imagine the play's final speech (which, if anything, is more beautiful than the opening) being done better. Amanda Hale's Laura is more wooden than fragile in the first half, but the scene in which she begins tentatively to bloom in the warmth of Jim's kind friendliness is heart-stoppingly beautiful.
The Gentleman Caller is one of those foolproof roles that is written so perfectly that no one can possible screw it up and, although once again he is not exactly as I would have it played, Mark Umbers captures all the warmth and humour of a simple guy who is more than a bit ridiculous but is also one of Nature's born gentlemen.
And the wrong steps I mentioned earlier? Matthew Wright's bizarre stage design puts the Wingfield apartment in a dungeon-like sub-basement or the bottom of a well, and Adam Cork's music score is often too obtrusive and overpowering for this gentle little play.
Almost unavoidably, much of the first act is devoted to exposition and mood-setting, with nothing really happening before the interval, and director Rupert Goold has not found a way to disguise that fact, so the play takes a long time to take hold on your imagination and heart.
And Rupert Goold's direction is full of small sloppinesses for which there can be little excuse. Ed Stoppard's Southern accent wanders between west Texas and Forrest Gump, never coming within a thousand miles of Jessica Lange's. (I can just barely accept the idea that a mother and son might have different accents, but surely they'd both pronounce Laura's name the same way.) And Amanda Hale's limp comes and goes, as the actress happens to remember it.
Do those flaws matter? Only to the extent that they distract you from the play's strengths - a beautiful little story lovingly told, some of the richest poetic language in all of American drama, and a central performance of touching depth and beauty.
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