Review: The Glass Menagerie – La Boite Theatre Company at The Roundhouse

Image: Kathryn Marquet and Julian Curtis | Photography: Dylan Evans

We believe in theatre not just plays. (La Boite: About Us – programme THE GLASS MENAGERIE)

So it comes as no surprise that David Berthold‘s production of Tennessee Williams‘ classic play THE GLASS MENAGERIE (1944) is nothing if not theatrical. Perhaps only radio drama can do it better than the stage – you know, the old line about the pictures in radio being better – but this production takes Williams’ poetic play about memory, loss, and especially illusion and recontextualises it beautifully to give us a boldly fresh take on an old classic.

Time past and time present coalesce as Tom Wingfield, the play’s narrator and most obvious evocation of Williams himself, takes us back in time framing events in the story of the disfunctional Wingfield family. But first, David Berthold frames his production within the first radio production of the play (1951) ; he introduces his company as the original voice over introduces its cast. As they smile back at us under the enigmatic gaze of a huge 1950s-style American billboard figure – a confident Don Draper kind of guy but actually the long-gone Mr Wingfield – you know we are all going to be in for some theatrical surprises, and Mr Berthold and his terrific cast do not disappoint.

David Berthold’s directorial touch is delicate and finely judged.  The Glass Menagerie is a ‘great’ in the 20th century dramatic canon and he allows the poignance and deep sadness of the play to have its way; there is no tinkering, for example, with the long, heartfelt passages spoken plainly and directly by Tom and Amanda. But Mr Berthold also sweeps a vivid, theatrical brush across the piece evoking its many absurdities – the artifice and posturing and folly – that figure so strongly in the play’s world. The production’s look and tone reference the expressionistic lens through which Williams saw his play. From Tom’s break out direct address to the use of mime – actors ‘eat’ invisible meals, prop cigarettes are never smoked – the focus on illusion at the core of the play provides a heightened sensibility for the production. It feels just right for what is – a very contemporary adaptation of the old masterpiece.

In his opening monologue, Tom sets the scene for what we might expect:

Yes, I have tricks in my pocket, I have things up my sleeve. But I am the opposite of a stage magician. He gives you illusion that has the appearance of truth. I give you truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion.

The production takes him at his word; the stage world lies in a key above the sort of ‘truth’ which naturalism evokes and in which most productions of this play find themselves. Designer Penny Challen strikingly suggests the decades from the 50s through 1970s in costume, colour-ways and set while Gordon Hamilton‘s composition and sound design slices and rearranges fragments of other times’ moods and melodies. Glenn Hughes‘ lighting design almost subliminally does just the same thing; the set positively glows as Laura entertains her gentleman caller.

Helen Howard and Jason Klarwein
Helen Howard and Jason Klarwein | Photography: Dylan Evans

Jason Klarwein, always strong and confident on stage, is in excellent form as Tom as is Kathryn Marquet as Laura, his sister. Laura is crippled physically and emotionally, and finds solace in her glass menagerie of little animals and old Victrola records. When the long-awaited gentleman caller Jim (Julian Curtis in a delightfully relaxed, pitch-perfect  performance) arrives for supper, the iconic scene between them is played with a lightness of touch and ebb and flow in emotional intensity that is enchanting and heartbreaking – as it needs to be.

Tennessee Williams is noted for his creation of strong female characters, and Amanda Wingfield is one of the greats. Helen Howard creates Amanda, the fiercely protective, domineering mother and former southern belle deserted by her husband 16 years before. Now mother and surrogate father to Tom and Laura, she has been left to raise both children by herself.

Ms Howard’s dynamic transformation into Amanda is thrilling. It’s a beautiful evocation of preposterous dominance, suffocation and delusion. Her voice and body are that of a vivacious 16 year old at a cotillion, her eyes are just a little too bright, her gaze a little too intense. She coos and charms, flutters and postures but all this southern charm masks and suppresses interior terrors. Amanda Wingfield is a fool but an unforgettable and a glorious one; the paradise of her own making is a breeding place for heartache and tragedy, but it is also where fine performances are created. Ms Howard’s is one of them.

The Glass Menagerie plays at The Roundhouse Theatre, Kelvin Grove until 31st August. Details are on the La Boite Theatre website.

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