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Tennessee Williams’s much-loved 1944 memory play The Glass Menagerie centres on Amanda Wingfield, a Southern matriarch who has always shapeshifted with the production’s approach. She can be girlish or sturdy, loveable or laughable, a sexist figure of fun or a feminist survivor. At London’s Duke of York’s Theatre, Amy Adams’s interpretation is sympathetic, free of the trappings of fading Southern-belle kitsch the role often comes with. This is a woman who’s bearing the weight of familial responsibility in Depression-era St Louis with a kind of beleaguered grace, marshalling her hapless adult son and daughter with an unexpected kindness. But although director Jeremy Herrin’s take brings new warmth to the family ties at the heart of this play, he doesn’t capture the wit and strangeness that have won it such a devoted following.
His most visible innovation is to split the role of aspiring writer Tom, who narrates the story, into two roles: the shambling, magician-like Paul Hilton plays the older version, while the awkward, teenagerish Tom Glynn-Carney takes the part of his younger self. It’s not a choice that particularly illuminates the play. Tennessee Williams closely based The Glass Menagerie on his own upbringing, and the character of Tom on himself – part of the play’s magic usually comes from this gawky storyteller’s showmanship, and his ability to transport himself back to the cramped apartment where he grew up. Here, that central transfiguration is lost.
Instead, the magic comes from technical trickery: a cabinet of softly tinted glass animals glimmers at the centre of the stage, with cameras projecting close-ups of this tiny menagerie onto a giant screen above. There’s a real beauty to the way that these miniature horses become giant rampaging beasts, echoing the way that Williams’s play invests small, domestic incidents with a wild, galloping intensity.
In this production, a lot of that intensity comes from Amanda’s painfully shy daughter Laura, played with pathos and subtlety by Lizzie Annis, who has cerebral palsy and is making her professional stage debut. Amanda devotes herself to securing Laura’s future, begging Tom to bring home “gentleman caller” Jim (Victor Alli) so that he can be wooed and cajoled into matrimony with an elaborate dinner. But when Amanda’s aspirations subside like an overmixed souffle, it’s Laura’s anguish that lands most strongly: Annis’s mouth contorts with shame and grief as she realises the extent to which she’s been manipulated by those around her.
The Glass Menagerie is typically funny as well as tragic, but this production is light on laughter. That’s mostly down to Adams, who delivers a likeable but underpowered performance. Her anguish at her children’s struggles feels real. But she lacks the flamboyant charisma of a woman who regales her children with monologues on the virtues of thorough mastication at the dinner table. Or who pours her underused verbal talents into selling magazine subscriptions over the phone.
Still, though this staging lacks the vigour to fully hit home, it’s a welcome chance to revisit this play. There’s something very current about its vision of a cash-strapped family lost in the futile dreams of a better life, as the threat of war rumbles just beyond the confines of their stifling apartment.
‘The Glass Menagerie’ runs at the Duke of York’s Theatre until 27 August