Acacia Daken, Image by Daniel J Grant

REVIEW: The Glass Menagerie | BSSTC

Acacia Daken and Mandy McElhinney, Image by Daniel J Grant

Review by Cicely Binford

Well, I do declare! Director Clare Watson has turned Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie into a quite the comedy! Williams could be rolling in his grave at this prospect, given that the play springs from the fertile earth of his own family’s tragic history, but perhaps it’s easier to imagine that he would lend Watson some poetic license for her lighter-than-usual approach to the Wingfield’s little melodrama. In any case, Watson and Black Swan’s trip down memory lane at His Majesty’s is a warm and colourful show, full of pathos, unexpected whimsy, and jazzy flights of fancy.

Watson has decided to follow Williams’s original stage directions which call for images and portions of the text to be projected onto the set; these caused a bit of a stir at the time, and weren’t used in the original Broadway production. It’s easy to understand why, after seeing them used in Watson’s piece – they’re redundant and even a little silly. But rather than letting them derail the show, Watson leans into the overall humour that lies below the surface of Williams’s lyrical text and exaggerated characters. She gently pokes fun at the nostalgia and the legacy around the play without wading into parody. There is, despite all the trappings of spectacle and poetry, a fundamental humanity in Williams’s work that still rings true, and it would be a shame to flout those essential qualities.

Mandy McElhinney and Joel Jackson, Image by Daniel J Grant

Watson’s vision is beautifully rendered through Mandy McElhinney as matriarch Amanda Wingfield. Amanda lives in the past, frets about the future, hustles her Southern charm, and is desperate for her children to live normal lives; McElhinney tackles all these with the ebullience and heat of a boiling tea kettle. But she does the role one better by using those natural comedy chops of hers to get us on Amanda’s side, in spite of her vicious verbal tirades against her own children.

Tom is uniquely styled by Joel Jackson in a very physical portrayal that reaches a fever pitch early on in the piece. His ‘Killer Wingfield’ monologue becomes a duet with Tom O’Halloran on piano with the two of them competing to be heard over each other. Jackson’s performance style differs from his co-stars in the way he embodies every line from head to toe, but as the narrator of the story, perhaps this difference ultimately works in his favour.

Acacia Daken and Jake Fryer-Hornsby, Image by Daniel J Grant

The peculiarities of Laura are played with gentleness by Acacia Daken, though there was still room for her to probe Laura’s psychological makeup even further. Given what is generally understood about Williams’s sister in relation to the character of Laura, it’s reasonable to expect acting choices that indicate a disordered mental state; however, this is an interpretation Daken and Watson may not have wanted to tackle in this production. Jake Fryer-Hornsby as Jim the Gentleman Caller brings yet another dynamic into the ensemble. He too takes a careful approach to the relationship between Jim and Laura, but his moments of Patrick Bateman levels of self-assuredness present an amusing juxtaposition to all the self-doubt and anxiety swarming around the Wingfields.

Image by Danial J Grant

The Wingfield’s apartment is suggestive of the family’s meagre circumstances, but filtered through a skilled design team’s eyes; the production values are beautiful and impeccably executed. The proscenium set designed by Fiona Bruce is sliced in three offset layers divided by scrim walls. The projections by Michael Carmody add colour, movement and height to scenes, alluding to the thoughts and images that float around our minds while we go about the business of life or recall a memory. Lucy Birkinshaw‘s sumptuous lights combine warm nostalgia with vivid colours to echo the intensity of emotion the Wingfields are living through. Bruce’s costumes stay firmly placed in the period and harmonise with the furnishings in a faded palette that becomes even more faded and delicate amongst the vivid hues of Birkinshaw’s lighting. Tom O’Halloran sits in silhouette on the piano at the back in the third layer of the set; but far from being just a backdrop, his musical accompaniment flows into and out of the action as a fifth member of the ensemble with sensitivity and perfect timing.

Watson’s production is full of unexpected nuances and a warmth that made for a surprisingly fun version of this legendary play that often takes itself so seriously. Her take on the script, like looking back at an old VHS tape of ourselves, asks us to look at what might be painful memories with love, forgiveness, and a healthy serving of humour.

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