Unbreakable: The Glass Menagerie Delivers Figures Of Steel And Subtlety At Arcola Theatre

The Glass Menagerie, Arcola Theatre ★★★★★

By Will Tizard Last edited 57 months ago

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Unbreakable: The Glass Menagerie Delivers Figures Of Steel And Subtlety At Arcola Theatre The Glass Menagerie, Arcola Theatre 5
Photo: Idil Sukan

Tennessee Williams clearly had sister issues. His guilt at having stood by while his sibling was prescribed a pre-frontal lobotomy focused him into producing one of the great American stage works of the 20th century: The Glass Menagerie.

The play’s many prior stage, film and radio versions have not always lived up to Williams' luminous dialogue, but the Arcola's current run is a riveting production.

Photo: Idil Sukan

Entirely set in the cramped apartment shared by Tom, his painfully shy sister Laura and their obsessive mother Amanda, the play’s nuances and realism are breathtaking: Mother fusses over salmon loaf in her desperate efforts to impress a gentleman caller, in hopes of marrying off the reclusive Laura. Laura, meanwhile, seizes up under the pressure of secretarial school but hopes to keep that secret from her mother.

Photo: Idil Sukan

Without question, the Arcola cast is up to the task in taking on such delicately wrought characters.

Michael Abubakar inhabits Tom with a dynamo of quick-change emotions, conveying movingly the restlessness of a young man bursting to break out of his smothering existence while still trying his best to do right by his dysfunctional family. The agonies and humiliations of Laura, performed with quiet mastery by Naima Swaleh, make us squirm while she deflects the furies of her mother. Lesley Ewen’s Amanda is herself a force of nature, blowing hot and cold in her epic battle to cling to a majesty her family has long since lost.

Photo: Idil Sukan

Everything seems to change — or at least finally have some kind of shot at it — with the arrival of Jim, Tom's buddy from his factory job, played with expert comic timing, but also considerable tenderness, by Charlie Maher.

As the gentleman caller mother has been yammering on about as the family's last-ditch hope for a future income, he’s been unknowingly recruited into a blind date with Laura. This painful setup could so easily go awry with a less thoughtful, judgmental interpretation played for cheap emotion. But veteran director Femi Elufowoju jr, a performer himself, is far too devoted to these characters’ battles for love and meaning to let that happen.

Photo: Idil Sukan

The Arcola’s stage, convincingly transformed into a 40s-era urban American basement flat on the wrong side of the tracks by designer Rebecca Brower, is a perfect fit for this play about the entrapment of little people in a big, brutal city.

Photo: Idil Sukan

Williams called The Glass Menagerie a memory play — one based only on his recollections and making no pretence of being objective or factual — as Tom explains to us, sauntering down the steps and onto the simple stage. We’re set up for a story of unpretentious honesty and the fierce bravery of its working-class characters. We are not disappointed.

The Glass Menagerie, Arcola Theatre, 24 Ashwin Street, Dalston, E8 3DL. Tickets from £10, until 13 July 2019.

Last Updated 31 May 2019