The Glass Menagerie, Apollo Theatre, London

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Dreams, hopes, memories – with unique sympathy, Tennessee Williams tapped into this layer of the psyche and so enlarged the world of drama. The truest of all Ibsen’s heirs, he understood this dream world in terms of family conflict and poetic metaphor. And so the glass menagerie that gives his 1945 classic drama its title is the controlling metaphor not just for the fantasy world of Laura, its younger heroine, but for the world of psychological escape that motors and distinguishes the entire gallery of leading characters he went on to create. He and Samuel Beckett were the 20th century’s supreme playwrights, and we are lucky that it had two artists so dissimilar to extend the horizons of drama. Yet they shared similar intuition for the feminine psyche. There are times here, as Laura’s mother Amanda rattles on with her hopes, delusions and denials, where she sounds remarkably similar to the heroine of Beckett’s Happy Days, currently and brilliantly in repertory at the National.

Rupert Goold, breaking through to a new level of prestige as a director, brings the shadowy world of The Glass Menagerie to life with fine sympathy. Nobody in all Williams’s plays is more touchingly fragile than Laura, above all in her long final duet with the Gentleman Caller. To hear the hush in which the Apollo hung on every heartbeat in this scene was to know how well Goold had succeeded. Every least movement that Amanda Hale (Laura) makes, every hushed remark, every turn of the head speaks the language of the soul at its most delicate. It is Mark Umbers, as Jim the Gentleman Caller, who does most of the talking, and his is an ideal performance: the golden boy who reveals his disappointments, who lights up Laura’s existence and who beats it, never to return.

Most of the play is dominated by Laura’s mother Amanda and brother Tom. The Amanda/Tom/Laura triangle is where Williams is at his most autobiographical: he would compare many rich variations on these three for decades to come. Neither Jessica Lange nor Ed Stoppard are quite pitch-perfect; Lange is slightly too contrived in her account of Amanda’s melodious old-world obsessions, Stoppard faintly forced in his Southern drawl, and they both go in for some unspontaneous gestures. And yet this matters little: their interaction is so keen, so vivid, that they make this beautiful play wholly absorbing.

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