Edinburgh review: The Glass Menagerie (King's Theatre)

John Tiffany’s production sheds dazzling new light on a great play as part of the Edinburgh International Festival

Cherry Jones and Michael Esper in The Glass Menagerie
Cherry Jones and Michael Esper in The Glass Menagerie
© Johan Persson

Before he became the man who brought Harry Potter to the stage, director John Tiffany carved out his career with the Traverse Theatre and the National Theatre of Scotland, famously setting the 2006 Edinburgh Festival alight with his unforgettable production of Gregory Burke's Black Watch.

So it's very smart of Fergus Linehan, director of the Edinburgh International Festival, to invite him back with this production, originally created for the American Repertory Theater in Harvard in 2013.

It's a glorious thing, a staging of Tennessee Williams's 1944 play that simultaneously brings new psychological realism to the telling and sets it floating free in the world of metaphor and poetry. This is literally true in Bob Crowley's setting, which places the battered furniture of the Wingfield family home on a collection of hexagonal platforms floating in black pools of water.

Unfortunately, if you are sitting in the stalls of the King's Theatre, this great imaginative leap is entirely lost; but you can see the fire escapes rising like a giddy lightening bolt into the dark sky and the half crescent moon that rises from the depths, as fragile as the glass unicorn that Laura, damaged sister of the the narrator Tom, so treasures.

The setting emphasises the delicate nature of the play – a work of memory and incantation, semi-autobiographical but changed into the status of art. Tom, who is loosely Tennessee himself, looks back on his impoverished early life with his mother Amanda and crippled sister, calling them like ghosts to the stage. Laura appears through the sofa; Amanda from behind a screen; Tom watches them as they perform the daily tasks of their life in stylised, graceful mime. (The movement direction is by Tiffany's long-time collaborator Steven Hoggett.)

Yet inside this dream-like frame, Tiffany and his cast create the most vivid, realistic world, full of small touches of understanding and complicity. Amanda Wingfield is often played as a monstrous mater familias, half-crazed by her memories of her past glories as a Southern belle, a precursor of Blanche DuBois. Yet in Cherry Jones's incarnation, she is a loquacious but caring mother, desperate to provide for her difficult and disappointing children. Her love for them is never in doubt; nor is her determination to shape events in her favour.

Jones is a legend on Broadway yet has not been seen over here. She is a revelation. This is a performance of immense strength but deft finesse. There's a wonderful moment when, having finally persuaded Tom to invite round 'a gentleman caller' in an attempt to marry off Laura, she claps her hands with complicit glee. She commands the space with sweeping arms and carefully placed hands; in the programme she reveals she knew this kind of woman when she grew up and you feel that knowledge in the way she moves.

There's a wonderful moment, too, when she touches the material of the suitor Jim's jacket, in an attempt to weight his worth. And her final despairing denunciation of Tom – "Go to the moon, you selfish dreamer" – packs an entire world of feeling and thought into a single sentence.

It is a great performance but it is matched by those around it. The long scene between Kate O'Flynn's Laura and Seth Numrich's Jim is a heart-breakingly intense study of fragile hope kindled and snuffed; Michael Esper catches exactly the right tone as Tom, both full of love for this lost world and suffocated by its expectations. The entire production has the satisfying effect of making people behave in ways that are entirely understandable and so sheds dazzling new light on a great, great play. Catch it while you can.

The Glass Menagerie runs at the King's Theatre at 7.30pm as part of the Edinburgh International Festival until 21 August (not Tuesdays).