Wednesday, 26 April 2017

'The Glass Menagerie' at the Duke of York's Theatre

The last time I was at the Duke of York's was to see the dire version of 'Dr Faustus' with Kit Harrington so I didn't have high hopes for my return to see 'The Glass Menagerie'. Some things linger.

I don't have a good track record with 'The Glass Menagerie'. My first viewing was in 2006 in Toronto, the evening I arrived in Canada and having front row seats and falling asleep in front of the table with the menagerie on stage. A cold beer at half time and walk in the snowy courtyard helped to wake me up and I stayed awake during the second half. Then there was the awful version at the Young Vic a few years ago  that tried to be daring and just failed. And now this version... OK, I can take it.... And I did.

I've only heard good things about this production but that's not enough to reassure me (the critics liked that awful 'Dr Faustus' after all).  So I quizzed Chris about what he actually liked about the play, what made him want to go back and see a new production. He said it was (partially) the poetry in the writing. Poetry? Where? What have I missed? Mmmm I thought, this time I'll listen out for any poetry and see what I hear. I will try not to get drawn into the story and remain a dispassionate observer.  I even had nice strong black coffee before the performance to make sure I don't snooze off.

It's the tale of Tom, a young man working in a factory in St Louis and his frustrating relationship with his mother and sister, his father having fled the family home many years ago. He works to keep the family home together but he'd much rather travel the world and become a writer. His mother is a southern belle who remembers the old days and ways and thinks she is still a lady despite their poverty. His sister is disabled and terribly shy but not as disabled as she thinks and I was pleased to see that in this production her limp was there but not overly-pronounced. It's her shyness that's her real problem. Tom says right up front that these are his memories, he's not trying to be objective and that's part of the power of the piece.

The family has it's ups and downs, mainly downs, and, on the critical night of the play, a 'gentleman caller' arrives who stirs things up for the family and leads to the argument between Tom and his mother that leads him to leave. And years later, as we learn, he still feels guilt about that night and his fleeing the family home leaving them to who knows what future. I can understand that but, I'd have left that home years earlier from sheer frustration with the mother.

Despite having a poor record with this play, can I admit that ... I quite liked it. This production seems to have brought the play to life in ways earlier productions have failed. I liked that the daughter's limp wasn't pronounced, liked that Tom was actually quite naturalistic with both mother and sister, liked the gradual opening up of the sister with her gentleman caller and her bravery in giving him the broken unicorn... actually, I liked quite a lot. I still have a problem with the 'southern belle' act of the mother - that alone would have made me leave much sooner!

The set was simple and relatively sparse and I loved the theatricality of Tom pulling his sister through the couch (into which she vanishes at the end). It was well acted, well directed, staged and lit and the sounds by Nico Mulhy all fit together nicely. All four actors deserve to be mentioned: Cherry Jones as the awful mother and Michael Esper as son Tom, with Kate O'Flynne and Brian J Smith. They meshed together well and convincingly. I'm not saying I liked it but, well, I didn't dislike it either.

And the poetry? I think I heard some but maybe I have to have another viewing of this play to really start to absorb it? We'll see...

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