“A touching story of genuine familial love, enhanced by the rich and mellow tones of a successful orchestra…

How much familial affection is too much? Can a mother’s love be tragically suffocating? And must fraternal duties supersede personal longings? Fourth Wall’s rendition of Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie, directed by Jasmine Starbuck and Abby Greenhalgh, shines a glaring light on all these questions. This is a play about relationships; more specifically that between Tom, a ‘selfish dreamer’, and his ‘crippled’ sister Laura. The exact nature of her ailment, both physical and mental, is never made explicit, but there is a perceptible sense of something gravely amiss in the family home, and it is this parasitic something that ultimately destroys it.

The set is simple yet intriguing. With its uniform tan palette complemented by mostly subdued lighting (Rory Collins), it perfectly evokes the humble yet warm atmosphere of the family home. The neutral hues are matched by simple and somewhat timeless costumes, creating a pleasantly monochromatic look. There is a highly intelligent use of the proscenium arch here, with an elevated platform occupying most of the stage. Most scenes are played here, in the domestic home, and are observed by the narrator (Archie Nolan), who unobtrusively sits upstage for most of the play. A smaller platform is placed downstage left and used only by Laura (Honor Calvert). It is removed from the rest of the set but there remains throughout, suggesting the unsettling possibility that Laura can hear all that goes on elsewhere onstage. This enhances her anxiety, communicated skilfully by Calvert with subtle but recurrent nail-biting, fidgeting, and nervous eye flickering in the direction of the main platform. The directorial choice to leave the reclusive Laura in this insular position for most of the play perhaps leaves her slightly too removed from the denouement of the action; she is, after all, the central worry of all other characters. However, the cage-like set-up of her platform is reminiscent of both an asylum and a comforting haven, offering an interesting take on her mental struggles and inability to escape them.

The sofa is perhaps the only obtrusive element of the set. Scenes playing out whilst sitting on it lack the impetus felt elsewhere, and invite a drowsiness not quite fitting to the dynamics of this unstable trio. Most notably, a scene between mother and daughter sat on the sofa at the beginning of the play is noticeably slower and less convincing. That said, this is followed by a brilliantly explosive argument between Tom (James Porter) and Amanda (Alannah O’Hare) – both standing.

Music forms a central element of The Glass Menagerie, as not just an accompaniment to the tragedy, but as the essential means through which it can be relived. Starbuck and Greenhalgh do not relegate sound to a backstage role, and a live string orchestra (James Pritchard, Sophie Garner, Anna Macdonald, Amy Upton), masterfully directed by Joshua McDade (who also expertly composed all music in this production – a phenomenal feat), plays throughout. Violin arches are perceptible behind the elevated stage, and contemporary musicians appear at the threshold of the family home. This invites an intriguing meta-relationship between music and drama, as the orchestra too possesses the ability to disrupt the already fragile unity of mother, sister, and brother. Henry Flack must too be credited for his superb sound design here.

The play is arguably centred around fraternal relationships, but it is the headstrong Mississippi-born matriarch who gives The Glass Menagerie all its vitality. The overpowering Amanda is brilliantly incarnated by O’Hare as she infuses the play with contagious dynamism. Indeed, her scenes with Calvert and Porter gain an added sense of urgency as her explosive energy contrasts with their latent entrapment within the family home. Her frantic body language and blunt facial expressions communicate Amanda’s unfailing honesty; they elevate the drama of other scenes, especially the violent arguments between mother and son, or challenging scenes, such as phone calls made to unknown persons.

Such a performance could occasionally highlight slight inconsistencies in momentum between times Amanda was present and times she was not. Scenes with other characters occasionally fell short of reaching their true potential, their interactions appearing slightly stunted in contrast. That said, much of the dialogue between James Porter and Honor Calvert was heart-warming and earnest. Archie Nolan also added new and subtle depth to his character of the narrator as the play developed, and intrigued the audience with his introspective but sensitive reflections on the action. He stood out especially following the interval, where Jim (Alfie Cook), was also introduced as the missing piece to this dysfunctional close-knit group. Cook presented an interesting take on Jim, and like Nolan, portrayed his character under a sympathetic light. His interactions with Laura were warm and good-natured, while also delivering considerably nuanced undertones of malice which some might attribute to the character. This made for a perhaps less conflicting view of Alfie – and a calmer but highly appealing second act.

This team clearly understood that solitude, or the fear of it, drives the action of this play. But they also created a touching presentation of genuine familial love, enhanced by the rich and mellow tones of a successful orchestra. It was a production full of sensibility, delicately punctuating tragedy with notes of humour. For this astute projection of Williams’s ‘memory play’, it deserves great acclaim.

By Elvire De Royere

Photo Credits: Fourth Wall Theatre Company