Manchester Theatre Awards

> Independent informed reviews by the region’s most experienced critics

The Glass Menagerie

Tennessee Williams
Bolton Octagon
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

Comments

Comment by David Chadderton

I'm not sure whether it's the best production of this play I've seen, but it's certainly the funniest and quite compelling from beginning to end. Leicester in particular makes the part and the play her own in a stunning performance. Rather than the slight limp we usually see, Fiona Hampton gives Laura what look like mild symptoms of cerebral palsy, which she carries off convincingly and works well. Nathan Wiley's inexperience occasionally shows, but it's still a professional debut to be proud of, and Kieran Hill gives one of his most endearing performances.

I too was a bit confused about the washing and the telegraph poles—it looked like a lot of work for the set riggers to questionable effect.

But overall a compelling production of a fine play in the hands of a director firmly within the area of his acknowledged expertise.

Comment by Diana Stenson

I agree with everything my fellow reviewers say, and agree that Nathan Wiley shows an extraordinary talent for a first time stage performer.  The Octagon seems to excel at finding newcomers - look out for him in the future.   Margot Leicester as the controlling self-obsessed but desperate mother, exasperated and enraged me - but she is meant  to! A crackling performance.  The scene between Laura (Fiona Hampton) and The Gentleman Caller (Keiran Hill) was heartbreaking.  Tennessee Williams himself said "nostalgia is the first condition of the play".  I think he would have sealed this production with his approval. 

Comment by David Upton

The latest ‘track’ in David Thacker’s Great American Playbook compilation is one that is a particularly sentimental journey.

Back in 1981 he had lured the Oscar-winning American actress Gloria Grahame to perform in Glass Menagerie when he was director at the Dukes in Lancaster.

Tragically she died just before the production was due to open and in his programme notes for this production Thacker talks of “unfinished business” with the play. It’s also family business this time, since he’s cast his wife Margot Leicester in the same role . . . and the two first met in Lancaster in the 80s.

As Panel colleagues agree, Kieran Hill is particularly powerful, carrying all the weight of both Wingfield and audience anticipation. Margot Leicester makes the delivery of dialogue, that simultaneously induces a smile and a wince, look too easy. Fiona Hampton simply breaks your heart with the sadness of her plight, and Nathan Wiley, freighted with the ‘Williams’ role as both narrator and character, makes his highly-impressive professional debut.

On opening night the production was not quite the sum of these considerable parts, but that might have been as much to do with an audience keen to seek out the humour - of which there is sufficient - rather than the more evident tragedy of the Wingfields’ glass warfare.

Least said about the set design’s laundry bill, the better.

Comment by Carmel Thomason

It is hard not to sound gushing about what is probably as perfect a production as you'll find. David Thacker's interpretation is understated and all the more powerful for it. There is so much in Tennessee William's play and this production delivers it in all its complexity with sterling performances all round. The three hours fly by and it all looks so effortless. A triumph for all involved and I urge anyone who can get a ticket to see it.

Comment by Robert Beale

I came to this very late, but endorse everything m'learned friends have said. A remarkable production, and four brilliant performances. Were the sheets there to convey the un-privacy of a tenement where everyone's laundry's hanging out?