REVIEW | The Glass Menagerie | American fragility on show

Review | Laura Money

Tennessee Williams‘ timeless classic is a humble jewel in the opulent crown of His Majesty’s Theatre. The nostalgic piece shines at the helm of Director Clare Watson, keeping things classy yet hauntingly whimsical. The Glass Menagerie is restrained and poised, yet an energy burns underneath it – at times contained and at others bubbling over through heated expression. Every single performer in this small cast is at the top of their game and it is an absolute privilege to watch this intimate play from a bygone era, set in a period of transition. As the world around them churns and changes, the characters in Williams’ world remain fragile and still – afraid to move for fear of breaking.

Staging The Glass Menagerie in His Majesty’s Theatre is a brilliant move. The play itself speaks to a loss of wealth and nostalgia for the character’s heydays. Tom Wingfield (Joel Jackson) frames the piece as the theatre does – he openly describes the play as a ‘memory’ – immediately rendering the whole thing with a hint of rose-coloured glasses. The set and costumes designed by Fiona Bruce reflect this idea of memory as a character with their somewhat shabby coats and old furniture clinging on for dear life. It is not overt, the dining table and lounge furniture look quite nice but there is the distinct impression that once they are worn out there will be nothing to replace them. Bruce instictively breathes life into the characters with her clever costuming – from Laura’s (Acacia Daken) mousy and unassuming attire to Amanda’s (Mandy McElhinney) fancy nightwear hidden under a housecoat. Her dreams and desires are hidden just under the surface but flashes of them appear.

Accompanied by the gentle tinkling of composer and pianist Tom O’Halloran and projections by Michael Carmody the whole thing has a surreal vibe to it. At times the keys of the piano – hidden behind scrim at the back of a stage and ever present – provide the soundtrack of the past and at others represent the fragility of the glass both literally and figuratively. The projections provide emphasis on important points and serve to create a collective image that cements the idea of nostalgia. Tennessee Williams, inspired by the movies, always intended to use film in his staging and now in the twenty-first century mixed media brings the whole thing together. The music and projections add a frisson that ripples throughout the audience every time the gentleman caller is mentioned.

The Glass Menagerie is about a terribly shy girl, Laura, who only wishes to spend her days caring for her collection of glass animals. Her brother Tom, who wishes to escape but is the main breadwinner for the family, and then there’s the mother, Amanda. With an absent father figure, Amanda is presence enough for both. McElhinney shines as the aging southern belle, she is overbearing and dramatic, yet there is a sympathy there – desperately clinging on to her faded youth she casts her lifeboat adrift with Laura in it. Of course, we are only seeing Tom’s memory of the events so McElhinney’s Amanda is able to shift and erratically jump about from drama queen to sad and broken. Perhaps the saddest moment comes when Laura’s arranged gentleman caller finally arrives for dinner. Jim O’Connor (Jake Fryer-Hornsby) charms everyone in the family, including Tom which is why he views his mother’s attempts at seduction as being far more overt than they probably were. Emerging triumphant in an early 1910s dress from her youth, Amanda flounces about and McHelliney plays it as though she is regressing, collapsing in giggles. Even in such a prone position, Amanda is formidable. It is her unpredictability that gives her power.

Bruce’s clever costume designs shine here as Daken’s Laura emerges like an awkward butterfly in a gossamer dress – becoming one of her own beloved glass figures. Fryer-Hornsby and Daken have genuine chemistry and their conversation, though initially cringeworthy, evolves into a coming together of two minds. Once again, this is Tom’s memory of events so it’s complete fantasy, as he wouldn’t have been aware of the conversation between them. His imagination sees Laura graceful and confident, Jim as charming and kind. When everything inevitably goes wrong, Daken’s stiffened demeanour and McElhinney’s over the top physical theatrics serve to firmly stamp this play as it’s own fragile menagerie of glass memories.

The Glass Menagerie is on at His Majesty’s Theatre until 21st August 2022. TICKETS

Acacia Daken and Joel Jackson as Laura and Tom. Image Daniel J. Grant

The Fourth Wall acknowledges the traditional custodians of the land we engage in storytelling on – the Wadjhuk people of the Noongar nation. We pay respects to their elders past, present, and emerging.

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