27 March 2013 to 20 April 2013
Bottom line first – this is a very, very, fine production indeed, by far the best I’ve ever seen of this too-oft-performed American classic.
Octagon artistic director David Thacker is an acknowledged expert in this area and boy does it show. More than anything else he has done, I think, during his reign here, this is pretty much the perfect combination of cast, staging and director working on a great play and producing a night at the theatre that you will remember for a very long time.
It was Tennessee Williams’s first big success, on Broadway, back in 1945, and it is, for me, the most intimate and tender of his plays, so touching and soul-searching that it is quite painful in ways I rarely find other modern dramatists have achieved.
He calls it a memory play; it is: modified events from his own family life in St Louis in the 1930s. Narrator Tom, alias Williams, conjures up recollections of the claustrophobic tenement home he shared with his faded Southern belle of a mother and his lame and painfully shy sister, Laura. And, in the second act, he recounts the details of the evening a Gentleman Caller came a’calling…
There are all sorts of other, wider, references to the world outside - an America heedless of the dark clouds gathering over Europe – but it is the intimate triangle of mother-son-daughter, caught in their own personal tragedies, that is the centre of the piece, and it is this that Thacker and his superb cast capture to perfection.
It is an unhurried production, at almost three hours, and the highest tribute I can pay is that I didn’t look at my watch once. The pin-sharp direction, revealing the surface and the underbelly of every line of dialogue, grips from the beginning and never flags. Everything is made clear, and the play emerges newly-minted and with a surprising streak of humour that must have always been there but hasn't been that obvious until now.
It’s on a thrust stage; that is, the back wall of the Octagon has a couple of metal fire escapes attached to it and the family living room is on the deck below, with the audience on three sides. I like this configuration at this venue - it works best, I think, like a miniature version of the new main house at Stratford.
Designer Ciaran Bagnall has strung the contents of a very busy Chinese laundry around the auditorium, and I’m not quite sure why. There are also four huge, slender, tree trunks/telegraph poles soaring off into the roof; again, I’m unclear as to what that’s all about. But his lighting is extraordinary. I see he has installed extra rigs around the walls, and perhaps that’s how he achieves the breathtakingly convincing candlelit intimacy in the second act.
Then there’s the cast. Not much to say here, except they are pretty much perfect.
Nathan Wiley is making his professional debut as Tom, and will inevitably receive a nomination in the Manchester Theatre Awards for 2013. Kieran Hill, an Octagon regular, delivers his most sensitive, deeply felt, convincing performance as the Gentleman Caller. The long, long, second act scene with Fiona Hampton’s heartbreakingly flawed, shiveringly withdrawn Laura, is simply exceptional.
Margot Leicester – I’ve been watching her on and off for more than 30 years – has done nothing better (that I’ve seen) than her interestingly robust, deeply caring and utterly sympathetic mother, Amanda.
Loved it, do see it.
Reviewer: Alan Hulme