The Glass Menagerie – Duke of York’s Theatre

Amy Adams’ star performance is outshone by a phenomenal supporting cast in a moving, if inconsistent production of Tennessee Williams’ ‘memory play’

Amy Adams in The Glass Menagerie

Amy Adams’ choice of West End debut role is a curious one. Playing the disappointed lower-middle class matriarch Amanda Wingfield, Adams gives a strong performance – if not an especially detailed or unusual take on The Glass Menagerie’s ostensible lead. Yet the question of who is at the heart of Tennessee Williams’ 1944 play is somewhat fraught. Amanda may have the highest line count, but – for all Adams’ winning star-quality – she does not quite feel like the protagonist of the drama.

Perhaps the most pivotal role is Amanda’s son, the mercurial narrator, Tom – a man with ‘tricks in my pocket’ and ‘things up my sleeve’, conjuring the play into being before our very eyes like a magician (or a playwright). Yet Herrin saws Tom’s role in half, with Tom Glynn-Carney delivering the spiteful, evasive, discontented younger version while Paul Hilton floats around the stage as a wistful and deliciously impish older narrator, reflecting on a life of mistakes with humour and anguished regret. Though the two halves are unified in a tender moment – where the Toms look searchingly at each other – the overall effect is for Tom to be reduced in importance by his bifurcation, rather than accentuated. In Herrin’s interpretation, Amanda’s daughter Laura is actually the play’s emotional centre, and though the role is usually played by Lizzie Annis, I saw Brydie Service understudy the role in a spectacular performance which was the finest out of a strong cast. Service should be remembered as a serious talent to watch. Adams complements the others well, but you wonder why she did not choose a West End debut in which she was more definitely the lead.

Adams plays Amanda as an incurable optimist – or at least someone who cannot bear to dwell on her life’s pains and sufferings. She manifests distant memories – of receiving seventeen gentlemen callers in one evening – as if they are the present, irrepressibly nostalgic within scenes that are themselves memories (of Tom). The result is that Amanda’s crueller streak is mostly minimised – though her cloying attempts at niceness can be oppressive – and the sense of a toxic family bringing out the worst in each other is muted. She sharply upbraids Laura for dropping out of business school – and wasting fifty dollars in the process – yet this soon turns to a warmer maternal sympathy, leaving the play to languish in general malaise rather than creating richer character drama from Amanda’s sometimes-mean unreasonableness.

Amy Adams and Lizzie Annis in The Glass Menagerie

Paul Hilton’s narrator is one of the highlights of the production, prowling the stage and watching over proceedings with a yearning regret. Every now and again, he sketches out a melody on an upright piano which then loops over and over – like the melancholy memories circling through his mind. Hilton feels slightly underutilised, doing his best with the relatively scant material that comes from slicing his role in two. Yet Hilton superbly embodies retrospective regrets about his past. As Williams writes in his notes on the characters, Tom is ‘not remorseless, but to escape from a trap he has to act without pity.’ At a remove of time, he is now all remorse and pity.

The set is a strange mixture of bareness and overcrowded detail. The titular ornament collection is strangely grand, perhaps one hundred pieces housed in a glass display case, almost like butterfly specimens. It seems implausibly grand and expensive. Most of the play takes place on a raised platform in the middle of the stage, which (from my position at the front of the stalls) renders the back half of the stage (including much of the fascinating, lurking performance of Paul Hilton) near-invisible. Meanwhile, the sides of the stage are comparatively cluttered with semi-realistic detritus, generating a strange dissonance with the almost-empty centre.

Ash J Woodward’s video projections loom over the stage, yet these rarely move beyond the illustrative. A minute photograph of the family’s absent father is vastly projected overhead, the patriarch bearing down on them in a way which invites fairly straightforward psychoanalysis. Despite this, the production rarely makes his absent presence felt; the emphasis here seems to lie with the financial pressures of 1930s America, the deleterious effects of age on a woman’s social status and opportunities, and culture being escapist rather than emancipatory. These are excellent points of focus, each with revealing comments to make on Williams’ frequently performed text, but not all of the production decisions line up with what we see on stage.

Victor Alli, Tom Glynn-Carney, Paul Hilton, Lizzie Annis, and Amy Adams in The Glass Menagerie

Herrin’s production is relatively procedural at first, and a snap judgement at the interval might write this interpretation off as lacking in dramatic verve. However, the play bursts into splendid, scintillating life in the second half – ironically when the apartment is plunged into darkness. Tom has neglected to pay the electricity bill, leaving Amanda to cheerily (but with aching sadness) remark ‘We’ll just have to spend the remainder of the evening in the nineteenth century’. After this, everything attains a prickly intimacy, especially when Jim, the gentleman caller whose visit has been arranged by Tom and Amanda, speaks to Laura alone.

This scene stands out from all the others – as it would in many productions – but the emotional depth that Service and Victor Alli find in their tenderly encouraging conversation is beautiful to watch. Service communicates a powerful sense that such an encounter – even just a conversation – was previously unthinkable for Laura, and we share the delight Jim takes in coaxing her out of her shell. The moment seems genuinely transformative and hopeful, yet the soon-to-come crushing revelation that Jim is already engaged to be married may make Laura close herself off again permanently – unwilling to risk being burned again. Alli plays Jim with a commanding confidence, though he is frank about the fact that this has been learned and practised. When Laura tells him she watched him sing baritone lead in a school production of The Pirates of Penzance, he is touched by her attention and signs her programme with a considered realisation of how much it does mean to Laura. A gesture that could be cheaply self-aggrandising has little arrogance behind it here. Jim is fully conscious of the weight of his words and actions, and he seems well-intentioned – aware of the good he could do in leading Laura towards a more assured and happier life, as well as the harm of promising too much and dashing her hopes. He wills her to aspire to more than her current life, and he seems quietly heartbroken by Laura’s enthusiastic response to questions about her hobbies, interests and talents that she has her glass collection. In his eyes, she is capable of so much more.

Where Jim oversteps is kissing Laura, a moment played not as Jim fulfilling a sordid impulse but as a complex negotiation of desires for himself and for Laura. He truly believes that ‘Somebody – ought to – kiss you, Laura’. The moment is not set to ‘tumultuous’ music, as in Williams’ stage directions, but is quietly intimate. Laura’s expression seems happier than the scripted ‘bright, dazed look’, though it turns to confusion as Jim mutters ‘Stumblejohn! I shouldn’t have done that – that was way off the beam’ – before confessing his forthcoming nuptials.

The production is a rather frustrating almost-there – not quite bottling lightning for most of its runtime, but never that far off. A more unified design, a thornier take on Amanda, and generally less literal approach to video projections would take it closer to a production for the ages. Yet, for around twenty minutes in the second half, during the searchingly tender and sophisticated interpretation of Laura and Jim’s growing mutual affection, the production would be near-impossible to improve. It shines with a delicate fragility, a glassy quality absent elsewhere but magnificent when it appears. Herrin’s The Glass Menagerie is worth seeing, if just for this scene alone.

The Glass Menagerie

Written by Tennessee Williams, Directed by Jeremy Herrin, Set Design by Vicki Mortimer, Costume Design by Edward K. Gibbon, Lighting Design by Paule Constable, Composition and Sound Design by Nick Powell, Video Design by Ash J Woodward, Casting by Jessica Ronane CDG, Associate Director Anna Girvan, Starring Amy Adams, Victor Alli, Lizzie Annis, Tom Glynn-Carney, Paul Hilton, Understudies Mercedes Bahleda, Phillip Olagoke, Mark Rose, Brydie Service
Production Photographs by Johan Persson
Reviewed 1st July 2022

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