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Review: The Glass Menagerie (Arcola Theatre)

Femi Elufowoju Jr directs Tennessee Williams' memory play

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
Naima Swaleh and Michael Abubakar
© Idil Sukan

Tennessee Williams' memory play is recast with an African American Wingfield family in this new production directed by Femi Elufowoju Jr. It has potential to bring a new reading of a mother wanting success for her children to light, but this casting doesn't seem to offer much of a new take on the well-known play.

Set in 1937 St Louis, the play which catapulted Williams to fame is based around Amanda Wingfield and her family, who, since her husband's absence, are struggling both financially and mentally. A family of dreamers, matriarch Amanda hopes that the arrival of a gentleman caller who can marry her ‘crippled' daughter Laura will solve the family's problems and allow her son Tom to be free of the burden of being the sole provider for the family.

A whirlwind of emotions, Lesley Ewen captivates as head of the household Amanda. From her almost deluded belief in her daughter to her affected laugh as she entertains a guest, there is a high emotion bubbling inside Ewen's Amanda throughout the performance which she is determined to keep hidden. In one short breath she goes from crying alone to vivaciously speaking to acquaintances on the phone. This is a woman who so desperately wants everything to go right but also knows how everything could go very wrong.

Rebecca Brower's set design of a homely yet cramped apartment complete with steep stairs has slight touches of magic to it thanks to video designs by Arnim Friess. Placed on picture frames and mirrors, the videos accentuate themes of memory and how the characters view themselves, and it would be interesting to see a few more of these moments appear throughout the production. Scene changes set to music of the period and some sound effects of tinkling bells undercut the magic somewhat, but don't dramatically change the atmosphere.

In casting the Wingfield's as a black family, Elufowoju Jr has chosen to keep the gentleman caller Jim O'Connor (Charlie Maher) as a white man. In many productions, this character is often seen as romantic hope for Laura (Naima Swaleh, in her professional stage debut). Yet in this context he is a mainsplainer, dishing out advice which has not been sought. It's uncomfortable to watch him tell Laura about her ‘inferiority complex' whilst her eyes stare, sparkling, utterly enthralled by him.There's something intrinsically jarring about a white man proffering advice to a black disabled woman in the '30s and it plays against the text somewhat.

It's not only Laura whom Jim appears to lord over, as he tells Tom of his ambitions and public speaking class. Serving as our narrator, Michael Abubakar gives a collected performance as Tom, perfectly encapsulating a strained mother-son relationship. Abubakar and Ewen have great chemistry, and their fight is heart-breaking to watch unfold.

Though well-directed and with a fine cast, the tragedy of this production of The Glass Menagerie is that it is a missed opportunity. The casting should give the play something very new to say, but here it doesn't.

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