To open The Glass Menagerie Tennesee Williams has his narrator/protagonist, clearly based on himself, draw the audience's attention to the fact that the play is an artificial world and, especially in a memory play such as this one, the memories in question are not necessarily reliable. Director Joe Hill-Gibbins has taken this idea and run with it in his production at the Young Vic, where Jeremy Herbert's set design cleverly gives the impression of being a bare stage when in fact it's nothing of the sort. The stage's workings are laid bare just as the fraught circumstances of Williams' family are in the story and the bold visuals set the scene for an unmissable production.
Leo Bill (from Posh) is Tom, who like the playwright is up most of the night writing while his days are occupied at a soul-sucking warehouse job to keep his family afloat after his father ran away 15 years ago (a cheesy poster of the missing dad overlooks their apartment.) The excellent Sinéad Matthews (from Eigengrau and Our Class) is his sister Laura, crippled some years ago by pleurisy and now a virtual recluse, living much of her time in a fantasy world occupied with her collection of glass animals. Particularly spiky and overbearing in Deborah Findlay's portrayal is their mother Amanda, still trading on past glories as the girl who had seventeen "gentlemen callers" in one afternoon (but ended up picking the wrong one.) The faded Southern belle who's such a recurring theme in Williams' work, despite her desperation to marry off Laura she still can't help herself from trying to steal the limelight when a man does at last show an interest in her daughter. These three are the only characters in the first act, which chronicles a fraught time in their lives (in reality, the writing of this play roughly coincided with Williams' own nervous breakdown and his sister's lobotomy) yet Hill-Gibbins and his actors have found every piece of comedy in the script (and there are surprisingly many) which helps the performance race along, as well as bringing us closer to the characters.
The crisis comes after the interval with the arrival of the fourth and final character, Laura's very own gentleman caller. The adorable Kyle Soller plays confident-but-awkward Jim, unknowingly about to step into the house of a girl who's adored him since High School. Much of the second act is taken up with a single, heartbreaking scene between just the two of them and they keep up tremendous energy throughout. Much like the whole play which runs at 2hrs 45mins, you're very aware of how long the scene is but not in the sense of wanting it to end, rather being impressed at how the actors are holding your attention for that amount of time. There's very little to criticise - about the worst I can say is that occasionally Findlay's attempt at a Southern accent is a bit mumbly, you're likely to miss things she says if she's got her back to you.
The production's dreamlike tone is helped by Dario Marianelli's often discordant music, performed onstage by visible musicians - Eliza McCarthy on piano and Simon Allen on percussion which, rather appropriately, includes wine glasses. For a play about broken dreams this is a paradoxically uplifting experience - quite likely to end up on my top ten of the year, I highly recommend this one.
The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams is booking until the 1st of January at the Young Vic.