Headlong Theatre have been blowing the minds of audiences across the country with their intense, thought-provoking adaptation of George Orwell’s 1984, and their adaptation of Wedekind’s Spring Awakening simultaneously greatly disturbed me and entertained me last year. Now, Headlong are back with a brand new production of Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie, co-produced by the West Yorkshire Playhouse and Liverpool Everyman & Playhouse.
The Glass Menagerie brings us into a small apartment amidst the backdrop of pre-war America, and is home to overprotective mother Amanda Wingfield (Greta Scacchi), her crippled daughter Laura (Erin Doherty) and her son Tom (Tom Mothersdale), who pieces together the fragments of his past that make up Williams’s memory play. Laura lives in isolation amidst a collection of glass animals after dropping out of business school, which makes her mother try and find her a suitable man to marry, while Tom dreams of a life of adventure away from the drudgery of working in a warehouse. One night, he brings his work colleague Jim (Eric Kofi Abrefa) back to the home in a bid to give Laura another chance at life, much to his mother’s delight, but it isn’t long before the harsh realities of the current world make this family’s desires come tumbling down.
Director Ellen McDougall has tapped into the text to bring us face to face with a bleak world that restricts the hopes of the characters. Richard Howell’s lighting design emphasises this bleak world, with simple hues of yellow and white casting ghostly glows on the characters and their dark little abode. Occasional spikes of music and energy bring the stage to life, but I can’t help but feel like there’s something not quite right about this production of The Glass Menagerie. Yes, there’s a strongly dark presence about the play, which complements the serious topics such as oppression and sexual politics that Williams addresses, but I can’t help but feel that it’s a little too dark.
By the end, I had a bit of a headache from having nothing to focus on but the characters and their objectives within the narrative. This is trademark Headlong intensity, but their other shows have also been dusted with more production values that really flesh out the writing and subject matter. There’s not much of a plot in The Glass Menagerie to begin with, which makes it more of a character study than an objective-driven play, and ultimately calls for production values to be much higher. Just when I thought that things were going to become slightly more engaging by spikes of ominous lighting and atmospheric music, they sadly didn’t.
In spite of this, characterisation throughout was excellent. Scacchi’s annoyingly soul-crushing Amanda was an excellent centrepiece of the production, and Mothersdale’s Tom drew the audience in with his ability to flit between past and present with ease. While I feel that the production began to run out of steam towards the end, this made me clearly see that the tension between the characters had exhausted any hopes and dreams the characters had, adding to overall bleakness of the piece.
After exiting the West Yorkshire Playhouse’s Courtyard Theatre, I couldn’t help but think about the relevance of this production in the modern world. While 1984 and Spring Awakening had the punch to make me do so, I don’t feel like The Glass Menagerie did. It’s a good example of excellent characterisation and decent conceptualisation, but I think it could do with more of that Headlong magic that makes audience members really question the world that they live in.
The Glass Menagerie is at the West Yorkshire Playhouse until 3 October. For more information and tickets, visit the West Yorkshire Playhouse website. Photo by Tristram Kenton.