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The Glass Menagerie, Arcola Theatre – Review

I love the metaphor at the heart of The Glass Menagerie. Laura, the daughter of the play, overwhelmed by the expectations of the world, treats her collection of tiny glass animals with such care lest they break. To stage this play, the metaphor must radiate through every facet of its production. Laura’s anxiety threatens the security of her family, should she not find a husband. Her mother Amanda’s desperation to micro-manage her life maintains a familial tension that holds the play hostage. Tom, in the absence of a father, must work all hours in a factory to provide for…

Summary

Rating

Excellent

A captivating production of Tennessee Williams’ classic, re-contextualised in an African-American community, and replete with the dreamy quality of the script.

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I love the metaphor at the heart of The Glass Menagerie. Laura, the daughter of the play, overwhelmed by the expectations of the world, treats her collection of tiny glass animals with such care lest they break. To stage this play, the metaphor must radiate through every facet of its production. Laura’s anxiety threatens the security of her family, should she not find a husband. Her mother Amanda’s desperation to micro-manage her life maintains a familial tension that holds the play hostage. Tom, in the absence of a father, must work all hours in a factory to provide for his mother and sister.

However, inevitably, beneath the surface is the omnipresence of the human disposition to dream.

Many aspects of Femi Elufowoju jr’s interpretation of William’s classic are deceptively traditional. Rebecca’s Brower’s set depicts a too-crowded apartment, bookended by Paradise Dance Hall’s neon lights on one side, fire-escape on the other. Arnim Friess’ video design discreetly represents the haunting presence of memory, through the projected portrait of the long-retreated Mr Wingfield, that looms over the family’s dinner table. Elufowoju jr keeps the play set in St. Louis in 1937, and casts the three Wingfield family members as African American. The text is relatively unchanged but, as the Director explains, the context is ‘reimagined’ within Black culture.

The family politics that drive the play are fervently depicted by Lesley Ewen, as Amanda. She is often comically over-bearing, but at times a little too much in overdrive. The frenzied need for her two children to succeed (in her ideal of What Life Should Look Like) is inherent in the text, but the almost violent representation of this desperation commits the play to a constant level of stress. When Ewen portrays Amanda in her nostalgic state, though, it’s a gorgeous thing. She is an intensely emotive actor and when it works, it is a wonder.

Naima Swaleh as Laura and Michael Abubakar as Tom capture the siblings’ polarised versions of struggle. The former retreats, hides, and deceives to avoid disappointing her mother. The latter escapes ‘to the movies’: he lives a separate life in the day-time, failing even to mention the existence of his sibling. Abubakar is a marvel. He lives the frustration of a man desperate to burst his banks and find something more. He also narrates, framing the play in unreliability and illusion.

One of the play’s most engrossing parts is the scene between Laura and Jim, a gentleman caller meant to provide the saving-grace to Laura’s apparent ‘predicament’ (single = bad). It’s uncomfortable as Jim, in the cold light of 2019, is an entitled bloke. It reads like he’s taken a course on how to council someone on dealing with imposter syndrome. Yet Laura, in the context of the play, is infatuated with him. Early in the play he is explained as her emblem of ‘what could have been’. The scene is a short, sharp journey to heartbreak, and Charlie Maher (Jim) and Swaleh embody the dream-like trait of the play. The lighting design and visuals help to suspend the play in the distinctive, ethereal quality of Williams’ script.

Elufowoju jr intentionally does not re-invent the fundamental elements that have anchored The Glass Menagerie as a classic. There’s a universality in the need-to-succeed that radiates from Williams writing. It is this that Elufowoju jr has retained and enhanced in his production. More than this, there are few representations of anybody non-white in Williams’ plays, and this show adjusts this inequality. This Arcola production allows an audience to re-visit a classic with new ears, but also to get swept along with the incredible storytelling of a Tennessee Williams play.

Author: Tennessee Williams
Director: Femi Elufowoju jr
Producer: Arcola Theatre and Watford Palace Theatre
Box Office: 020 7503 1646
Booking Link: https://www.arcolatheatre.com/whats-on/the-glass-menagerie/
Booking Until: 13 July 2019

About Bryony Rae Taylor

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Bryony is an English Literature MA student at Birkbeck and long term theatre addict. Playing angel #14 in her primary school production of 'What a Very Grumpy Sheep' paved the way for a happy long term relationship with the theatre. When not watching plays or manically writing essays way before the deadline (a day is long enough, yes?), she can be found reading, foraging for her next meal, or in the pub. She's waiting for someone to write a play that encompasses all of these hobbies. Bryony would be willing to reprise her role as Angel #14, as it was a groundbreaking performance.