Theatre review: The Glass Menagerie

Michael Esper and Cherry Jones perform on stage Picture: Getty

Michael Esper and Cherry Jones perform on stage Picture: Getty

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When John Tiffany’s great production of The Glass Menagerie opened in New York in 2013, Ben Brantley of the New York Times said it saved Tennessee Williams’s 1944 masterpiece from its reputation as a ­“lovely little memory play”, and restored it to its true ­status as “a great memory tragedy”.

Star rating: *****

Venue: King’s Theatre

And within a few minutes of the opening of this spellbinding production, it’s possible to see – emerging magically from the darkness of the stage, like the remembered forms of the narrator Tom’s sister and mother – the three main impulses behind that great achievement.

The first is to take the idea of a “memory” play ­seriously, not as an excuse for misty nostalgia, but as a fierce, fragmentary thing that casts a harsh, painful light on some corners of remembrance, while obscuring others. The second is to give a rare, full weight to the historic setting of the play, in a shabby St Louis apartment towards the end of the deepest economic depression in modern ­history. Economic struggle is at the core of Amanda Wingfield’s desperation, as she tries to save her vulnerable daughter Laura by finding her a job or a husband.

And the third, of course, is to cast the great American actress Cherry Jones as an Amanda no longer a ­fluttering, mentally fragile southern belle, but a woman trained to charm yet made of steel, carrying whole weights of American history on her strong, shapely shoulders, fighting for her frail daughter’s future with every weapon she still has to hand, and sending into the world a son whose resemblance to her has never seemed clearer, as they battle, flirt and argue their way towards an inevitable separation. Michael Esper, Kate O’Flynn and Seth Numrich offer powerful support, as Tom, Laura and the longed-for Gentleman Caller; and Cherry Jones ­delivers a mighty performance for our time, in a play that now appears in its full moral, political and tragic force, as ruthlessly true as it is heartbreaking, and – like the images that linger forever in Tom’s mind – impossible to forget.

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