Tennessee Williams has often been heralded as one of the best playwrights in the history of the English-speaking language and, being unfamiliar with any of his work other than A Streetcar Named Desire, I wasn’t too sure what to expect as I walked into the innovative space at the Young Vic theatre. I can happily say that I was very impressed indeed. For those of you unfamiliar with the play, it is a memory play. This means that it is a play written from the perspective of someone looking back at events of the past and often, as in this case, it is narrated by said person.
The intertwining of the narration with the story itself was something that director Joe Hill-Gibbins put together very well. Often within the action of the play the narrator (Tom played by Leo Bill) would signal to the musicians on the higher level and they would begin playing and the lights would change in what was a regular and effective fashion. Which brings me to the musicians.
I have said many times that having a constant score underlying the play and cropping up here and there is something that has to be done very well to succeed and that I have not yet seen it done well. Intermittent birdsong to give the illusion of being in the countryside often makes you far more aware that you are sitting in a West End theatre so it’s always my policy to avoid it unless it really works. Thankfully in The Glass Menagerie it really works. The constant ditties on the piano make it feel like a painful memory, which makes the structure of the play more solid and gives Leo Bill an easier job in his narration. The music did astound me. The majority of it was in perfect keeping with the glass theme of the play; a series of wine glasses filled with water played beautifully and subtly. My praises go to Simon Allen and Eliza McCarthy for doing such a fantastic job of the music.
The acting was not substandard either. Leo Bill gave an assured and suitably torn performance as the anguished Tom, who seems to have nothing but thankless responsibility on his shoulders. He took his dual roles of Tom and narrator in his stride and made it seem a natural link and not a ham-fisted theatrical technique.
Deborah Findlay plays a fantastically overbearing and unbearable mother figure, whether that be a compliment or not, and within a few minutes you were in cahoots with Tom and his inability to put up with her. Her performance is an energetic one that doesn’t drop the ball once throughout the whole show, which is impressive indeed.
Kyle Soller is the other cast member, who plays the self-assured to the point of arrogant Jim. When he enters the stage the dynamic changes and his bouncing character is so full of vibrant life that it contrasts beautifully with the trapped and tortured family he has come to visit for dinner. His performance is strong and brings out the best and more nuanced aspects of Sinead Matthews’ Laura.
Any review of this show would be remiss if it didn’t make a special mention of Sinead Matthews. Her Laura was the most powerful female performance I have seen all year bar none. I found myself wondering if they had cast her because she already had a limp and a stammer or if she was putting them on beautifully. It appeared that such beauty would be the watchword for her performance, carrying off the dignity and troubled soul of Laura with a grace that is necessary for the role. She is wounded and doesn’t over-play her hand. She is coy and quiet and her performance was, I think, the main success story of this brilliant show.
Without exception the cast slotted in to their characters with such poise that it was easy for the audience to drop in to the setting of the play and empathise with the turmoil of all the characters.
The script was masterfully interpreted and the painful scenes at the end almost had me in tears, certainly squirming uncomfortably as the extremely relatable characters’ hopes fell apart despite their best efforts and the apparent turn of good fortune. Again, Sinead Matthews is at the heart of it all.
The use of what is a very versatile stage was suitable varied. Hill-Gibbins made good use of the levels with people often marching up and down the stairs and across the balcony past the musicians. The partition that they used in the second act made for both intimate and grander scenes, giving the actors a chance to play with much more space than there actually was. Everything seemed to fit the show and there was nothing that stood out as excessive or unnecessary.
There were very few things that ran against the strength of the show. A few stumbled lines were close to becoming a problem but as it were they were taken and swiftly forgotten as the play marched on. Other than that and the badly timed change of Sinead Matthews’ hair colour from the blonde of the poster to a brunette there was little to pick at.
I would thoroughly recommend seeing this production and with it being extended for two weeks they’re doing all they can to make sure you do.
Written by Tennessee Williams; Directed by Joe Hill-Gibbins; at the Young Vic; Starring Leo Bill, Deborah Findlay, Sinead Matthews, Kyle Soller; runs from 11 November 2010 - 15 January 2011.
John Ord (24/11/2010)