Tennessee Williams' classic The Glass Menagerie, an unflinching depiction of a family ripped apart by past mistakes, self-deception, mental illness and guilt is regularly produced. But to be honest all that pent-up emotion can be wearying.
Deserted by her husband former Southern beauty Amanda Wingfield (Margot Leicester) desperately seeks a husband for her chronically shy daughter Laura (Fiona Hampton). She persuades her unhappy son Tom (Nathan Wiley) to bring home a potential suitor – a gentleman caller (Kieran Hill).
By emphasising the humanity of the characters rather than their iconic dramatic status David Thacker’s new production at The Octagon lightly side steps all the potential problems and highlights the considerable strengths of the play. Much of this success is attributable to Leicester’s vivid interpretation of the central role of Amanda Wingfield.
Rather than the traditional approach of a selfish shallow woman, driven by internal demons to hector her children, Leicester motivates Amanda with a desperation to make up for her past mistakes by generating some kind of security for her family. The charm showed by this talented actress is enough to suggest that Amanda might not be exaggerating her romantic past. Leicester’s dignity is such that the key scene of Amanda appearing in her faded ball gown generates a compassionate response rather than one of embarrassment.
Thacker shapes the production around the characters. Scenes in which the matriarch is central are reflective: lit in autumnal shades and featuring Andy Smith’s gentle haunting music. Fiona Hampton’s perceptive and disturbing performance makes clear that Laura’s problems are much deeper than physical. The music in scenes in which she is alone is discordant, suggesting the unsettled state of her mind. Thacker leaves the high drama to the text and draws out a surprising level of gentle humour from the exchanges between the family members.
The cast is dominated by the mother and daughter roles but no one disappoints. Under the self-improvement bluster - Kieran Hill gives the Gentleman Caller a growing awareness that he passed his peak with his success in high school. Nathan Wiley draws out the internal conflict of a man desperate to escape from a stifling situation but too inherently decent to follow his feckless father.
The wide-open space of The Octagon stage makes it difficult to capture the stifling claustrophobic heat of the play. Ciaran Bagnall tackles this limitation by dragging the audience into the sprawling tenement that spills off the stage as lines of laundry hang over our heads.
The Glass Menagerie is a play that you feel obliged to go and see because it is regarded as a classic. With the current production at The Octagon you just feel you’d like to see it again, as it feels fresh.