The Glass Menagerie, Bath Theatre Royal and Alexandra Palace

TENNESSEE Williams’ semi-autobiographical play The Glass Menagerie was first performed in 1944, a year after his beloved sister Rose was subjected to a frontal lobotomy in an attempt to cure her schizophrenia. In the play, adapted from a short story, writer Tom Wingfield is trying to get away from the claustrophobic home he shares with his mother Amanda and his shy and lame sister Laura.

Abandoned by her husband many years ago, Amanda lives in a romanticised world of courtly Southern suitors – gentlemen callers – and wants the same for her unhappy daughter. Tom takes refuge in drink, poetry and the cinema. When he is persuaded to bring a work colleague home for dinner, a cruel coincidence shatters the uneasy patterns that the Wingfield family has evolved.

Like so many American plays, the unfolding of the story relies on a narrator, and here it is Tom, whose opening speech talks about memory and the part that music plays in it. This touring production is directed by Atri Banerjee, whose programme notes point out that every memory of an event is not of the event itself, but the last time it was remembered. Each time is subtly different, as each theatre on the nationwide tour is different, and will lend its own individuality to each performance.

So at Bath Theatre Royal we are seeing the BTR version of the play, and it will change again for its final stop, the atmospheric Alexandra Palace with its bare brick walls and “unfinished” stage.

Banerjee allows each character enough space for full impact, creating a powerful ensemble piece rather than the more-usual star vehicle for Amanda with supporting actors. The “new scene”, an imagined dance for Laura and gentleman caller Jim, takes this production into a very different place, created by sound designer Giles Thomas and movement director Anthony Missen.

Played on a circular set surrounded by glass ornaments (too small to see from most of the auditorium) and later those jonquils that almost fill the theatre with their imagined scent, the oppressive atmosphere is evoked by Amanda’s insistent retelling of a happier past and compulsive nagging to prevent Tom from following his errant father’s drunken and unreliable footsteps. Add to that her telephone patter, persuading customers to subscribe to the magazine she sells, and you can feel the walls closing in.

Geraldine Somerville manages to make Amanda’s determined motherhood understandable and less culpable, as she flits in and out of the action with magnetism and unshakable belief. We still feel the anger that burns in Kasper Hilton-Hille’s Tom and the frustrated terror of Natalie Kimmerling’s Laura. Zacchaeas Kayode’s Jim is full of great ideas and compassion, and his scenes with Laura knock the breath out of you. The faultless direction brings out new elements in what for many may be a familiar story. There were some in the Bath audience who had come along to watch Harry Potter’s mother Lily on stage, and who left the theatre puzzled at what they had seen. It was a revelatory reading and performance of a timeless and mesmerising play that has messages for every generation of every family.


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