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Review: THE GLASS MENAGERIE, Duke of York's Theatre

"I give you truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion," declares Tom Wingfield, the narrator of Tennessee Williams's exquisite memory play. Director John Tiffany has proved gloriously adept at handling both sides of the equation in the magical trick-filled yet emotionally authentic Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, and here too, in this acclaimed production that comes to the West End via Broadway and Edinburgh, wonders rub shoulders with bruising truths.

Recession, political instability, revolutionary ardour and pining for a gentler world: there's plenty to make this this 1930s setting feel searingly current. But the skill of Tiffany's production is the way it closes the human gap between us and them, making it an almost unbearably intimate exchange; there's no grandstanding from Cherry Jones as domineering mother Amanda, no comic grotesques or pantomimic Southern speech.

There are gasp-eliciting moments - as Tom summons his sister's memory, she springs forth from the worn sofa; Stephen Hoggett's movement is ethereal and bewitching, always on the edge of dreamlike strangeness - but this is a beautifully restrained rendition. Tiffany places delicate focus on the smallest of interactions, yet sets them within a haunting expressionistic frame.

Bob Crowley's stark design eschews period fussiness, giving greater significance to what remains - for us and in Tom's memory. There's Tom's typewriter, his escape route; the screen from which Amanda emerges to reprise her gracious hostess performance; a dark reflecting pool, leaving the family's St Louis apartment shipwrecked, floating in time and space; Laura's beloved glass unicorn, lit from within (a bright spark among Natasha Katz's ghostly shadows); and fire escape stairs spiralling upwards like the unicorn's horn, leading to somewhere, or nowhere.

Jones offers a revelatory Amanda - not a gorgon, but a grafter, holding her family together following her husband's departure and in the face of a cold, hard world. She forces a smile as she hawks magazine descriptions to doddery women, employs florid hand gestures as tools of the trade, maintains a certain dignity even when donning her faded cotillion gown, and assesses her dreamer children with a shrewd, practical eye.

There's still an element of cruelty to her recounting of suitor-filled glory days - something fragile, friendless Laura will never experience - but Jones gives Amanda's chatter purpose: if she ever stops talking, she will succumb to despair.

Her relationship with Tom is fascinatingly nuanced: though his resentment boils over into furious tirades, he's deeply connected to her. When they argue, they circle one as another as if practised dance partners; they take mischievous pleasure in their collusion over the 'gentleman caller' marriage plot; and Tom still comes to lay his head on her shoulder like a lost little boy.

Michael Esper makes Tom a dark mirror for Amanda - both switching between flamboyant performance and angry, vicious personal observation. The pair are fellow prisoners chafing at their bonds, Amanda in a city and era that grow more and more alien, budding writer Tom (read Williams) in a job and lifestyle that deny him his identity.

Refreshingly, Kate O'Flynn refuses to allow Laura to be an object of pity. Though quiet and physically contained, she's chipper, unusually funny and implacable, defending the logic of her worldview, which makes that cruellest magic trick of all - the seeming blossoming of love - utterly devastating, as this survivor has the last of her defences blown away. One kiss leaves her frozen, suspended in a moment of such tangible hope that its removal feels like a small death.

There's superb work too from Brian J Smith, completing this quartet scarred by loss. The high school hero-turned-factory worker blossoms as Laura recalls his past triumphs, joyfully donning that persona, and traffics in more delusion as he declares an end to all her problems via cod philosophy from his public speaking course. Great productions of great tragic plays con you into believing that this time, the illusion of hope might become reality; here, the reveal that it won't is a brutal gut-punch.

The final tragedy, heartbreakingly communicated by Tiffany's production, is that Tom's memory is inescapable - this is not a safe, distanced reminiscence, but a glimpse into a troubled psyche. "The past turns into everlasting regret if you don't plan for it," proclaims Amanda, in a warning that becomes an everlasting curse.

The Glass Menagerie at Duke of York's Theatre until 29 April

Read our interview with Brian J Smith

Photo credit: Johan Persson

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