It’s rather apt that this new staging of this classic play about greed, lies and family rivalries opens at the Royal Exchange as the final series of Succession also hits our screens. Director Roy Alexander Weise is clearly fascinated by themes of family dynamics and the ugliness that may lie beneath the surface and bubble up to the surface at any family gathering. There is a powerful moment when the Pollitt family circle in and sing Satan, We’re Gonna Tear Your Kingdom Down (memorable from another family drama series Greenleaf). The stage and cast are bathed in blood red light and the violence of avarice and mendacity is palpable at what is, on the surface a family birthday celebration.
Weise subverts the classic text by casting black actors as the wealthy Plantation owning family. The themes of exploitation, greed, capitalism and pride look as authentically ugly here as in the original. They are timeless and not subject to any one race or creed. Patrick Robinson is a stylish suited and booted Big Daddy, his veneer of brute determination and utter self-belief is softened only by his adoration of his younger son Brick. Bayo Gbadamosi is a beautiful, detached Brick who is weary of his wife’s passion and vitality. He has checked out and no longer has an interest in anything but liquor and chasing the click. There is a potential issue in the modern day setting in that it is more tricky to understand his absolute avoidance of confronting his own homosexuality. Perhaps it is best contextualised in the setting of Brick as a sportsman and football player and his absolute emotional paralysis as that of a man broken by guilt and grief.
Ntombizodwa Ndlovu makes a memorable stage entrance and dominates the first Act. Her Maggie is as bootilicious as Beyonce and as lush as an overblown gardenia. She is all women and outwardly confident of her sexual allure but Ndlovu seamlessly also shows her vulnerability and frustration in this sexless, childless marriage. Alternating between funny and vicious, this cat on a hot tin roof is not to be trifled with. Jacqui Dubois is great as Big Mama choosing only to see what suits her and flitting away any inconvenient truths. Danielle Henry relishes her role as the fecund Mae, flouting her pregnant belly and constantly referencing her brood of would-be heirs or as Maggie terms them…no neck monsters.
Set in modern day, Milla Clarke hascreated a beautiful set with a sleek bedroom setting and loads of hidden alcoves secreting as many empty booze bottles and wigs as the family hide secrets and ambitions. The huge rumpled bed is a constant allusion to restless but sexless nights in this unhappy marital bed. High above the bed and constantly turning like time is a stylish suggestion of a child’s mobile taunting Maggie. Gold beaded curtains hint at the great wealth in this house but also suggest the binding, suffocating chains of gleaming greed in this luxurious prison.
The soundscape by Alexandra Faye Braithwaite and the lighting design by Lizzie Powell work brilliantly together to build the dreamy, slightly unreal mood of the production. Ethereal echoes of voices and music and flashes of far off lightening or fireworks in the grounds create a great illusion of the space and scope of this grand house beyond this steamy, claustrophobic bedroom. Overall Weise has created a gorgeously engrossing piece of theatre worthy of sitting back and binging on.
A ThickSkin and Traverse Theatre Company production
How Not To Drown is the last scheduled production at Oldham Coliseum before the final curtain comes down on March 31st. It is fitting that this is a powerful hard hitting piece of drama that is socially relevant and thoughtfully made. It seems incredibly sad and frustrating that important work like this programmed in a long established theatre with a vibrant history should be subject to Arts Council decisions that close its doors for good.
This story is the lived experience of co-writer and actor Dritan Kastrati who was only eleven years old when his parents paid to have him trafficked out of Kosova in the aftermath of the war. Alone and at the mercy of people smugglers, he made the perilous journey to England in the hope of being reunited with his older brother Alfred. What follows is a chilling indictment of our care system as this vulnerable child is subjected to intimidating procedures, passed around foster homes and kept away from his own brother. He spent five years feeling like an interloper and a financial business arrangement for foster carers. His return to his family after five years is unsatisfying and frustrating as this young man is still displaced and at odds with his environment as his homeland is irrevocably changed and his mother tongue feels unfamiliar.
“I don’t know why my Dad let me go, especially when he knew how dangerous, how hard it was… I was too young, too weak to make this journey. I wouldn’t have sent me… He wouldn’t have sent me unless there was a reason.”
ThickSkin use their trademark physicality to bring this story vividly alive. The five strong cast play multiple roles which powerfully reflects the confusion for the central character as faces and voices constantly change and shift precariously just like the raft on which they perform. The staging is bleak without any creature comforts…not even a lteddy bear or a life jacket; reflecting the harshness of the refugee experience of Ak47s, hard chairs and barricades. The whole production evokes the urgency and chaos of usurpments and resettlement where children are not allowed to be children and where sadly a hug isn’t safe. Watching the central character performing on stage it might be easy to assume that all is now well for Dritan Kastrati and he has finally found his place…I hope that is true and home for him is now more stable and content offstage as well as onstage.
LeedsPlayhouse and Belgrade Theatre Company co-production with Rose Theatre
Written in 1957 and a GCSE English staple for generations this production could be, at best a useful adaptation for students and schools to schedule into the curriculum. In the hands of a skilled and creative director like Amy Leach it thankfully translates as a provocative and cautionary tale for the 21st century. The casting by Lucy Casson is really excellent, replacing a traditional group of schoolboys with a genuinely diverse cast that all work together to create a terrifyingly believable bunch of kids stranded alone on an island. As with any really excellent horror you may know what’s coming next but it’s dramatic impact repeatedly hits with a fresh sucker punch!
Max Johns’ set evokes elements of a lush tropical island; yet there is a darkness to the towering palm trees and the pale cliffs evoke an inner city skate park that might just be threatened by rival gangs. Leach jettisons her characters unto stage with a mighty jolt and a deluge of crash debris falls from the sky. Friendships are formed and reformed in seconds as some of this bunch of traumatised kids seek to find order and security while others revel in the new found freedoms of a world without family or schools. This cautionary tale of power struggles between good and evil, order and anarchy, and morality and immorality is as relevant now as nearly 70 years ago. It is no less shocking and perhaps more genuinely frightening in our modern world where knives and bullets are easily come by and our seeming capacity to see threat in “other” is alarmingly prevalent.
This disparate bunch of children from different schools pick a leader in Ralph who Sade Malone plays beautifully as a good all rounder who has a natural exuberance and an innate sense of fairness. Her role as leader is threatened by the gangly, arrogant Jack who Patrick Dineen embodies with all the elitist, self- aggrandisement of an Oxford Bullingdon boy. Neuro diverse actor Adam Fenton shines as the ticcing, epileptic Simon and Jason Connor gives a skilled performance as the wise Piggy who is likable yet annoying. Deaf actors Ciaran O’Breen and Eloise Pennycott bring a lot to this production with their comedic timing and expressive physicality. Jason Battersby gives a stand out performance as Roger who revels in the pain and misery of others. This is a chilling watch as Battersby gives his Roger a nihilistic stance as the quiet onlooker who quickly becomes a sadistic sociopath swaggering across the stage and dispassionately murdering Piggy.
Theatre programming that brings curriculum pieces to life on stage is crucial to widening learning opportunities and breaking down preconceptions and threshold anxiety for the next generation of theatre lovers. It is also sensible bread and butter programming for increasingly cash strapped theatres. Thankfully this Lord Of The Flies production achieves all the above but with the addition of being a genuinely elevated piece of theatre. Amy Leach and a talented team of cast and creatives have produced something really fresh and relevant that inspires and provokes.
Adapted by Brigid Larmour from an idea by Tracy-Ann Oberman
Directed by Brigid Larmour
A Co-production by Watford Palace Theatre and HOME Manchester
This new adaptation of Shakespeare’s “problem play” sees actress and writer, Tracy-Ann Oberman and director Brigid Larmour rework The Merchant of Venice for a female Shylock who is a widow and a mother. This female money lender is based on Annie, the great-grandmother of Oberman and all those strong women who emigrated to Britain after the 1905 progroms in Russia. Tracy-Ann Oberman embraces the discomfort of this role as the beleaguered moneylender demanding her pound of flesh, giving a strong impassioned performance in this still widely debated play that questions Shakespeare and his views on Judaism.
The sound of shattering glass offstage indicates that the brewing antisemitism of Thirties Europe is alive and flourishing in the East End of London.This production is set in 1936 to the backdrop of the rise of Oswald Mosley and his British Union of Fascists party and the resulting riots during The Battle of Cable Street on 4th October 1936 when working class people came together in support of the Jewish community. The deeply divisive aspects of this play are further highlighted by the fact that it was also adopted by the Nazi regime in Germany where the characterisation of Shylock was used to validate antisemitism. After KristallnachtTheMerchantofVenice was performed all across Germany.
Here Larmour and Oberman do not shy away from the complexity of their Shylock but balance it neatly against a background of privilege and arrogance as the Venetian noblemen became rather less noble as entitled Bullingdon Boys in the vein of Boris Johnson, David Cameron and George Osborne caricatures. Their Portia is a cool willowy blonde society heiress equally at home in riding jodhpurs or a bias cut ivory satin evening dress. Clearly modelled on the infamous Diana Mitford, wife of Oswald Mosley who married him at the home of Joseph Goebbels, this is a woman giddy and lethal in her own sense of power.
The set design and costumes by Liz Cooke work together wonderfully well to capture the gritty side of East End London and the sleek sophistication of society life. Everything about this production suggests a real love for the project and great attention to detail. The music of the period blends Yiddish music and classics such as the apt Stormy Weather. The screen images tell a story of the rise of Fascism and quiet poignant moments on stage such as a disparaging glance between Portia and Jessica say more than words ever could about a society where old money and breeding will always sneer at new money.
This is a strong cast with well balanced performances but ultimately it is the women who shine most brightly. As Portia, a pitch perfect Hannah Moorish hands out money and a ring to Brassanio, her new husband and Shylock finances the Merchant Antonio with her bond; it’s notable that these very different women are also moneylenders exacting and expecting their own pound of flesh. Tracy-Ann Oberman relishes a role that celebrates women she clearly feels incredibly proud off. Her call to arms in the closing sequence is a plea that wearebetter together…perhaps the placing of some of the audience on stage is also a powerful unifier. In difficult times we all have to make choices where we stand…if we do not then those choices can be ripped away. The most powerful moment in the production is not Oberman onstage but sitting on the rough wooden step. Momentarily beaten by the bullying elite, she is clutching a tiny brown suitcase just like all those still stacked together as a memorial to all those sent to camps such as Auschwitz.
Song From Far Away is an evocative study of grief, emotional repression and isolation that is at turns both delicate and brutal. This monologue with song perfectly blends the talents of playwright Simon Stephens and songwriter Mark Eitzel. It feels like a musical for those of us who want to see something that feels more ethereal like the vibe of Cocteau Twins rather than a big West End number. Will Young is a singer, actor and writer who excels as the emotionally repressed and weary cynic that is Willem. Like his character Willem, Young has also lost his only brother but if the performer is channeling his own grief, anger or frustration it is subtle and never remotely self indulgent.
Grief is like a fault line that opens up inside of us and irrevocably changes our emotional landscape. When we speak of grief as a journey or a process, perhaps what we are really describing is how we accommodate this new version of ourselves that still fits our outward clothing but internally feels alien and strange. We see the world in double vision…part familiar terrain and part unchartered waters. Song From Far Away takes Willem from his adopted New York, once New Amsterdam, back to his childhood home of Amsterdam for the funeral of his 20 year brother Pauli. The monologue is in form of letters written to Pauli as Willem reluctantly navigates a return to his childhood home.
Will Young gives a controlled and emotionally nuanced performance as a hedge fund manager rich in wealth but pauper poor in empathy. Willem is emotionally guarded and aloof and his initial response to hearing his brother has died is one of irritation. Young channels Willems’ disdain for others into micro gestures, facial expressions and clipped tones that convey the character as emotionally stunted and terribly damaged by his family dynamics. This is story telling with caustic wit and casual cruelty yet punctuated by moments that catch Willem by surprise. In those, Young can dazzle with the small agonies of walking into his brothers’ bedroom and finding a sock drawer left open and a half read Kafka novel never to be unfinished or a sudden rush of joy as his little niece Anka singles him out to play with.
The staging by Ingrid Hu is sleek and minimalist, as beige as an airport lounge, a Manhattan loft apartment or a perfectly tended dutch townhouse. Marbled walls and sweeping curtains frame vast windows that act is a backdrop to the magic of quietly falling snow or the hazy sparkle of fireworks dancing in a night sky. The ceiling occasionally lowers or rises, and walls and curtains ebb and flow echoing the emotional tides of grieving. The contracting and expanding like a heart that carries on despite another having stopped forever. Jane Lalljee uses light to move the scenes letter by letter as Young recounts the week after his brothers’ death. The hazy, dreamy lighting is punctuated by occasional plumes of amorphous smoke that create almost a sense of another being circling Willem as he reads to Pauli.
A song fragment heard in a bar lodges in his memory and encapsulates his sense of loss and fragmentation. Young hums and later sings as the song takes form and something seems to open up in Willem. Young sings exquisitely and wistfully. This feels like a prayer to loss and the possibilities of love and connection. Young manages to rein in his performance so we never lose the sense of Willem on stage rather than Young, the singer. Stephens and Eitzel beautifully convey a sense of rootless dislocation and the complexities of family, relationships and grief. Director Kirk Jameson has been sensitive and controlled in his directing. The production retains a strong flavour of European theatre and the style of Ivo Van Hove who originally commissioned the play in 2014. Jameson has retained the contradictions and sense of alienation in the production but allowed the writing to feel equally at home at HOME…rather fitting as a homecoming for Simon Stephens who is Stockport born and bred.
The first in a trilogy, David Eldridge wrote BEGINNING in 2015 and had a hugely successful run when it made its debut at the National Theatre in 2017. The play runs in real time over the course of an evening after a house warming party ends. Laura has a smart new flat in West Didsbury and the last guest left is Danny who is a newcomer to her social circle. Eldridge takes this boy meets girl drama and manages to subvert what one might expect by exploring the immediacy and intimacy of two vulnerable people navigating possibilities. The sheer simplicity of Laura articulating what she wants without any artifice creates a beautifully multi-layered drama as the play explores the complexity of what happens when two people caught in a moment reveal their back stories and how they impact on their choices.
The set design by Ty Hay is an estate agents’ dream with a sleek kitchen island complete with Smeg oven, dishwasher and wine chiller while the lounge furniture looks like an ad for LOAF. Surfaces are littered with the debris from the recent party and the designer rug has a fresh cigarette burn. Either side of the set loom street lamps and the stage gleams with smooth fresh tarmac. The overall effect is as subtle as the storytelling, allowing for lots of movement by the two actors as they at times literally dance around each other. The tarmac effect sleekly eludes to fresh starts and gleaming possibilities while the glowing street lamps suggest a voyeuristic feel to this production. Watching the actors for nearly two hours as they learn about each other feels very much as if we the audience are peering in on our neighbours in a gripping Will they/Won’t they scenario.
Laura is a 38 year old company MD with a new flat in West Didsbury while 42 year old divorced Danny is back living at his Mums’ house. Erin Shanagher and Gerard Kearns are perfectly cast as these wounded characters who are navigating points in their lives that they had not foreseen. Shanagher is wonderful as she makes quicksilver shifts from feisty to goofy to weary and anguished. Her Laura is endearing and brave in her vulnerability as she navigates the evening and propositions the uncertain and wary Danny with the possibility of sex, breakfast and a baby. Kearns gives a perfectly pitched performance in his laddish ordinariness and stained shirt and his Danny is a revelation as he opens up about himself. This is a man mourning being a dad who gets to be nothing more in his daughters’ life than a monthly direct debit and seems to have lost hope for his future. There is a single moment where Laura is dancing her heart out to a Bros track and Danny is watching and clearly amused…what tracks across Kearns’ facial expression is a dawning realisation that he could really fall in love with this woman…theatre at its best!
Beautifully crafted writing by Eldridge and mature and caring direction by Bryony Shanahan coupled with strong performances by Shanahan and Kearns make for a winning production. It’s a brave move to hope an audience can be absorbed in watching 2 people cook and eat fish finger Butties in real time, debate Strictly and the merits of a Ginsters and dance around a kitchen. Beginning draws the audience into routing for this burgeoning relationship despite there being more missteps than slick moves in this courtship dance. Utterly absorbing in its sharply observed take on loneliness and longing, this play is funny, poignant and exciting as the couple navigate the stepping stones and roadblocks peppering their first night together.
Written and Performed by Lois Weaver and Peggy Shaw
Directed by Lois Weaver
Split Britches is a multi award winning feminist, lesbian theatre company formed in New York in 1980. Originally created with Deb Margolin, the company is now Peggy Shaw and Lois Weaver who are also on/off life partners. Their combined ages come in at a mighty 153 years of life experience, theatrical technique, dry humour and wonderful storytelling. Shaw and Weaver blend gender politics and pop culture references with autobiographical content to explore an ever changing world.
This show was being devised when Covid-19 hit the world and they found themselves waiting out lockdown residing in a borrowed house which had been stripped ready for redevelopment. LAST GASP was intended as a last show for Shaw but literally became a last gasp for the house they inhabited, our democracy, and in a global pandemic for the world we all knew and had taken for granted. They devised the show using Zoom and other techniques to develop LAST GASP WFH which screened as a Zoomie in 2020. The current reimagining has Weaver alone on stage while Shaw appears on various screen formats unto near the end where she strolls onstage with script in hand and a torch. It seems a fitting reflection on theatre experience in recent years…filmed productions on computer screens, one person shows on empty stages and then a return to the familiar.
LAST GASP blends storytelling and trips down memory lane for both performers giving a satisfying sense of where they started and the journeys they have gone on. Weaver still carries the hopes, curiosities and frustrations of the little girl on the porch “cooking” beans and playing House. Peggy Shaw carries her confident sense of being right/righteous from her Protestant Bostonian heritage but it’s woven with dry acerbic humour as she reflects on her queer journey through the Seventies to today when conversations on gender politics leave her pondering…how did this old school queer end up on the wrong side of the table? This production is all about grief for the losses change brings and the redemptive possibilities when we pause and recalibrate.
Weaver uses the whole of a vast stage with few props to dance and whimsically play hide and seek with Shaw and the audience. Shaw appears on screen larger than life looking down on an sometimes childlike Weaver or pops up onscreen as though lying under a table on stage. Weaver disappears behind projection screens and pops up as though dressed to go puddle jumping. The whole effect is charming and captivating as although they both reference the issues of the aging process they also encapsulate the promise it may also bring.
This is an intelligent piece of theatre that informs and engages with ever becoming preachy. It is also deeply pragmatic and challenges concepts around disability and aging. Shaw had a stroke in 2011 that impacted her hearing and her ability to learn lines. In this production she wears hearing aids and large black headphones. They look kickass with her sharply tailored suit but also allow for Weaver to feed her her lines. These are women unapologetic for their aging bodies and all the more glorious for it. They stand strong as performers both separate on stage and together. They do a lovely take on Noah Baumbach’s film Marriage Story that plays on butch/femme dynamics. They bicker on both the professional levels of who has awards and grants, and who wants to stop performing or carry on. They bicker about infidelity within their personal relationship but the nugget of intimacy that gleams through is when Weaver picks up the others spectacles and hands them to her and Shaw smiles her appreciation. In that small exchange there is no last gasp but 153 years of words spoken and unspoken.
Based on the novel and film by John Ajvide Lindqvist
Directed by Bryony Shanahan
ROYAL EXCHANGE THEATRE
To the uninitiated LETTHERIGHTONEIN might look like a typical Halloween vampire gorefest, but thankfully this production is so much more. The blood and gore may spurt in a plentiful supply, but at its glistening heart this a story about love, otherness and acceptance. A lonely young boy being viciously bullied at school and ignored by his alcoholic mother meets an ageless, sexless vampire hungry for more than just blood. This hugely successful Swedish novel has spawned numerous film, television and theatre adaptations. Director Bryony Shanahan takes this 2013 adaptation by Jack Thorne and creates an almost immersive audience experience in the round. As the tension builds and the exits are blocked the audience is trapped just like the victims, the peril of leaving the theatre blood splattered is viscerally real and the poignancy of such a macabre love story becomes painfully vivid.
The set design by Amelia Jane Hankin is highly effective in creating an early Eighties atmosphere that is versatile enough to function as the inside of a school sports facility, a bleak Swedish council estate, eerie woods and a Sweetie concession in a neon bright shopping mall. The ladders and platforms over the stage, and the climbing frame all give the production room to build the drama and a real kinetic energy; however the continual wheeling in and out of additional props is often as distracting as it is effective. The startling use of light by Joshua Pharo to propel and enhance the horror elements of the drama is stunningly good especially when coupled with the sound design by Pete Malkin. The overall effect is to create a real sense of nothing ever being quite what it seems or that permanence or security is fleeting and can vanish in a curl of steamy air or the sudden silver flash of a blade.
In the main this is a strong cast with some lovely character driven performances from Darren Kuppan and a bleak and intensely creepy Hakan delivered by Andrew Sheridan. The two central performances are uniformly excellent with the inspired casting of Rhian Blundell as Eli and Pete MacHale as Oskar. Blundell is utterly captivating as the centuries old vampire child. Her physical presence morphs like quicksilver between wary and tentative youth to muscular and visceral blood hungry creature, and then on to winsome innocent charm. MacHale as Oskar is sweetly awkward and geeky with a keen intelligence that comprehends the failures of the adults around him while his innocence is bewildered by his bullies and mesmerised by the sexless Eli who smells of death and stale blood. Both actors are utterly believable and allow for this story to rise above the usual teen vampire fare to become something much more emotionally satisfying.
There are some problematic issues with this production but the overall feel is of a stimulating and satisfying night at the theatre. Director Bryony Shanahan may have sometimes allowed for overly busy scenes or in the case of the scene with Oskars’ father a somewhat redundant one, however overall this is a gorefully gorgeous production. Some of its most memorable moments such as the swimming pool scene were climactic on so many levels and a potent reminder of The Royal Exchange at its very best.
A Sheffield Theatres and Ramps on the Moon production
Since 2016 Ramps ontheMoon have been partnering with six major venues including New Wolsey Theatre, Sheffield Theatres and Leeds Playhouse and Birmingham Repertory Theatre. Each year, this collaboration produces a large-scale touring production with one of the theatres to showcase the talent of deaf, neuro diverse, disabled and non disabled performers and creatives. Much Ado About Nothing is the fifth such production but the first to experiment with Shakespeare and the first to use British Sign Language BSL and Audio Description AD Directors to further develop fully integrated access both on stage and for the audience.
This year is the turn of Artistic Director RobertHastie of SheffieldTheatres to work with the company. The resulting outcome is a joyous affair that ensures this comedy sparkles and feels fresh and innovative. Most significant about this production is that the work of Hastie, the actors and the creatives have resulted in giving real emotional depth and resonance to the piece. It is a witty and fast paced, irreverent production but it also has beautifully crafted performances that give new depth and interest to some of the best loved familiar characters.
This is a highly intelligent and perceptive production which is beautifully staged. The gleaming set designed by Peter McKintosh is sleek and stylish summerhouse and incorporates captioning in the skylight. In the opening sequence the cast gather for dinner inside the summerhouse and we observe them on stage through the sliding glass panels. In a wry twist, the audience can see the animation and the interactions but from a voyeuristic perspective where many of us can see but cannot hear…when the cast “see” us they burst through introducing their characters and who signs, etc, all using Audio Description. This breaking of the fourth wall sets the scene for a production that feels consistently accessible to all and no strategy used ever feels tokenistic or shoe horned in. The overall feeling is that this theatrical medium actually embraces and enhances the original Shakespeare.
This is a strong cast who work in a very collaborative manner. There is music from multi instrumentalist Kit Kenneth as Balthasar and some lively dance sequences as the cast stage a hoedown in old Messina! Dan Parr exudes easy confidence as Don Pedro as he oversees the machinations of the various love affairs. There are some great duos with Claire Wetherall and Taku Mutero as Hero and Claudio and with Laura Goulden as Margaret who speaks most of Hero’s signed dialogue. The relationship between Beatrice and Benedick is of course central to the richest vein of humour with their rapier sharp exchanges. This is an inspired pairing as Daneka Etchells and Guy Rhys are perfect as Beatrice and Benedick. Both actors bring earthy wit and perfect comic timing, but also real emotional depth that makes their love affair utterly believable and truly potent. When Guy Rhys taps his prostheses as he asks Beatrice which of my bad parts did you first fall in love with, it is such a perfect moment. Etchells’ outrage and raw pain at the unfairness of her cousin’s undoing is hard to watch but incredibly moving.
This is a production with a focus on accessibility, acceptance and raising awareness. It ticks every box and as a bonus enhances this classic comedy. I took my daughter who hates Shakespeare but is learning BSL. We left Leeds Playhouse with a Shakespeare convert… so big thanks to the cast and creatives!!
Like so many other productions delayed or impacted by the Pandemic, Atri Banerjee’s vision for The Glass Menagerie altered over the last two years. We will never know exactly what this production might have looked like in early 2020 but it is hard to imagine it being better than this current reimagining of the TennesseeWilliams‘ poignant classic. Our personal experience of lockdowns in our homes lends itself perfectly to this claustrophobic image of a home constrained by unfulfilled desires. Like Williams, Atri Banerjee understands love in its many flawed manifestations and allows the intense emotional pain in the writing to be illuminated with the warm glow of empathy.
The claustrophobia of lockdown for so many mirrors Tom who istrapped at home with his Mother and Laurawith his true nature stifled and all his hopes for the future in limbo. In contrast his deeply introverted sister is actually more content cloistered within the home than she ever could be in the outside world, as were so many introverts who actually thrived during lockdown. In this memory play, the Mother takes all her solace from the past as this faded Southern belle relives past glories when she graciously received gentlemen callers on her parents’ porch. The visitor Joe is the first caller of note and as such is both a breath of fresh air in this stale environment and inevitably the catalyst for radical change.
All four performances are uniformly excellent. Joshua James as Tom is weary and hollow eyed, bitter and despondent, trapped in a job that serves only to support his family but dreaming of escape and excitement. Frequent evenings spent in the cinema allude to a secret life, further hinted at when he gives his sister a rainbow scarf from his evening sojourns. James is utterly believable with his Southern drawl and dry whip smart retorts. He embodies the tortured young man equally capable of casual cruelty and genuine tenderness. Rhiannon Clements as Laura exudes the palpable discomfort of a young woman far more socially hindered by her neuro diversity than by her physical impairment. It is a thing of quiet magic to observe as she blossoms with the positive and genuine admiration from Joe. Eloka Ivo has little to actively do or say in the first Act yet this actor ensures he maintains an absorbing presence throughout. His performance illuminates the second Act like the glow of candles which Tom lights all around the stage. He has an energy and a physicality that separates him from the others and serves effectively drive the narrative. Geraldine Somerville is perfectly cast as Amanda, the relentless mother whose love can appear monstrous yet comes from the heart of a lioness seeking security for her cubs. Her performance is as brittle as the delicate glass in the Menagerie yet as a Mother she has a core of steel.
This is a gorgeous production where less is always more bar one brief dance scene with Laura and Joe that jars with the overall tempo and pacing of the play. The design by Susanna Vize is stripped back to basics where even the glass menagerie is subtly alluded to rather than centre stage. The simple wooden chairs, the candles and the evoked heavy scent of flowers evoke theatre and home as church like manifestations of weddings, baptisms and funerals. The multiple vases of pale flowers which overshadow Laura’s glass animals also serve to allude to the floral tokens received from all 17 of her Mothers gentleman callers. The heightened drama of the set is the huge illuminated sign saying ‘PARADISE’ which turns through the performance and echoes the church like feel as though a metaphor for Christ on the cross giving up his life for us…just as Tom is being expected to for his family. The staging is complemented by wonderful lighting from Lee Curran and a dreamy soundscape from Giles Thomas.
The Glass Menagerie is the 1944 play that was the breakout success for Tennessee Williams and it continues to be a classic that doesn’t date. The themes of family bonds, duty, responsibility and love are intrinsically bound up in the complexities of being different or not wishing to fit with normative values. Atri Banerjee directs this production with intelligence, compassion and perhaps his own personal experience of what love and duty may look like within a family unit. He certainly nails the pain and the passion of love that seeks to find its own way to flourish. Like Williams whose beloved sister is celebrated in Laura, Banerjee is celebrating difference as all the nicer and nothing to be ashamed off.