The Glass Menagerie
Duke of York’s Theatre, London
“The future becomes the present, the present the past, and the past turns into everlasting regret if you don’t plan for it!” cries Amy Adams as Amanda Wingfield in Jeremy Herrin’s new production of The Glass Menagerie.
That regret seeps through every scene of Tennessee Williams’s heartbreaking masterpiece: Amanda’s regret at making a bad marriage; Tom’s at abandoning his fragile sibling and fretful mother; above all that of the playwright, haunted throughout his life by the cruel hand life had dealt his delicate sister.
Herrin makes plain this connection: rather than have one actor play both the older and younger Tom, he splits the role. Here Paul Hilton is the older man — a conflation of character and author — introducing this semi-autobiographical drama about life in 1930s St Louis and hovering around the edges of the work he has conjured from his troubled memories.
This approach reminds us that what is seen as a memory play is also far more than that: there are encounters in it Tom couldn’t possibly remember, having not been in them. It’s partly a play about memory — the way it tantalises, destroys, sustains — and about the cruel disparity between dreams and reality. So while Tom’s guilt shapes his memories of the period, the play also becomes an act of understanding in Herrin’s staging as a huge video screen shows hazy images of the absent father or of Laura’s glass animals, magnifying the inner worlds of the two women.
There’s much compassion, then, in these recollections. Adams’s understated Amanda is no overbearing monster but an abandoned wife who has raised two children alone and is now panicked by the potential hardship facing them. Ill-equipped to understand them, she fusses over them as if they were infants. It’s a low-key performance that draws sympathy for a woman out of her depth.
Tom Glynn-Carney’s young Tom is restless and miserable, torn between affection and his desire to escape, and Lizzie Annis’s Laura is superb: a fragile, anxious dreamer fundamentally ill-suited to the world around her. As she talks to “gentleman caller” Jim about her glass animals, she lights up, and we suddenly see who she could be. That’s the tragedy here, and Victor Alli’s fine Jim shows us a man realising too late how dangerous it is to bring casual warmth into this delicate situation.
All this is sensitive and thoughtful. And yet. Restraint seems to dampen this great play. It feels muted, fitful and rather cramped. The action unfolds on a platform, centre stage, surrounded by props and paraphernalia and dwarfed by the video screen. This framing might emphasise the act of creation at the play’s heart, but it feels too literal. It constrains the acting space, making it difficult for individual scenes to breathe or for the emotional momentum to build up. The Glass Menagerie should shatter you. This is a staging that eschews melodrama — but it’s also one that doesn’t break your heart.
To August 27, thedukeofyorks.com
Open Air Theatre, Regent’s Park, London
You may have sung, you may have skipped, but have you ever tried singing while skipping — and not just in your own kitchen but on a major London stage? This is the feat pulled off by Lauren Drew in Legally Blonde at London’s Open Air Theatre. Her jaw-dropping number “Whipped Into Shape” — delivered while jumping rope at sizzling speed — is just one of the many upbeat moments that make Lucy Moss’s new staging of the 2007 musical, by Laurence O’Keefe, Nell Benjamin and Heather Hach, blaze off the stage, warming even the chilliest of English spring evenings.
On the surface, subtlety is not on the menu. The story of sweet blonde party girl Elle Woods, who pursues her boyfriend to Harvard Law School and discovers her own sharp legal mind there, was made famous by the 2001 comedy film starring Reese Witherspoon. Here it arrives in a riot of hot pink, with Elle’s friends echoing both her wardrobe palette and her bubbly demeanour as they spin round the stage chorusing the opening number “Omigod You Guys” in various shades of cerise, rose and fuchsia.
But behind the playfulness there is something deeper going on. Legally Blonde is a tale of overturning assumptions and proving that you belong. Here Moss builds that into her production: the casting celebrates diversity, led from the front by Courtney Bowman, who describes herself as Afro-European, as Elle.
Bowman makes the part her own: she brings to it a rich, powerful voice and from the word go she is no ditsy blonde, but a smart, sassy and charismatic young woman who is boxed in by expectations. She is nicely matched by Michael Ahomka-Lindsay, gentle and concerned as her fellow student Emmett and the one who first sees her potential. Meanwhile there’s a knock-out performance from Nadine Higgin as Paulette, the beautician, whose soaring voice must surely reach the passing planes.
The songs are not collector’s items; the set, fringed with blonde, is rather clunky and unappealing; there are times when the energy feels too insistent, as if the show is trying to convince you that it’s fun. Even so, this is a whirlwind of a production that breathes positive new life into a popular story and delivers it with a mischievous twinkle and an irresistible generosity of spirit.
To July 2, openairtheatre.com
Shakespeare’s Globe, London
It’s purple, rather than pink, that rules the colour palette for Amy Hodge’s new staging of Henry VIII, Shakespeare’s late history play written with John Fletcher. Rarely staged, it’s a tricky affair telling the story of the downfall of Cardinal Wolsey and Henry’s switch from his first wife Katharine to her successor Anne. Georgia Lowe’s costumes dress the court in a revealing array of purples, mauves and lilacs, gradated to fit the wearer’s character. Adam Gillen’s childish, petulant, vicious Henry wears flashy, iridescent outfits and a coat several sizes too big; Bea Segura’s beautiful, dignified, wronged Katharine has a darker, subtler purple robe.
Hodge comes at this stiff, pageant-heavy play from a female perspective, with playwright Hannah Khalil cutting and filleting the original and putting the women front and central. Segura’s Katharine is by far the most sympathetic character on stage, matching poignancy with integrity, her sincerity a shaming rebuff to all the manoeuvring going on around her. Janet Etuk’s Anne Bullen comes over as a smart young woman trying to navigate uncertain waters and Khalil makes Princess Mary (Natasha Cottriall) a spoken presence by giving her passages from other plays to express her feelings.
The men, meanwhile, scheme and squabble. We see Gillen’s Henry variously sitting on a golden toilet, cavorting with a huge golden phallus and stabbing the pink balloons that herald the arrival of a baby girl. Jamie Ballard’s debauched, pompous Wolsey is at his most human when he is, literally, stripped of power, removing his cardinal red robes to be left in beige undershorts.
But for all the shift in focus and the vivid, brash stage images, the play rarely comes to life. There’s a reason it’s not often performed and this iconoclastic approach doesn’t make it any more textured or moving. Perhaps a completely new play responding to the original would have worked better.
To October 21, shakespearesglobe.com