Amy Adams is a great actor but not a flashy one, an important distinction that’s seen her somewhat farcically lose out on each of her six Oscar nominations, and not even bag one for her greatest role as a troubled linguist in Denis Villeneuve’s ‘Arrival’.
It’s a quality that continues into her West End debut, in which she forms the understated lynchpin of Jeremy Herrin’s startlingly humane take on Tennessee Williams’s peerless 1944 play ‘The Glass Menagerie’.
Matriarch Amanda Wingfield – loosely based upon Williams’s own mother – tends to be portrayed as an overbearing monster, whose suffocating love has stunted the emotional growth of her children Tom and Laura. But Adams plays her completely differently: as a girlish, almost naive woman-child, a single mother who has probably damaged her children by an inability to act the responsible parent, but who isn’t fundamentally a bad sort. It’s a very generous and forgiving take on Amanda, and the very opposite of a look-at-me celebrity turn. Yes, Adams’s Amanda lives in the past, banging on about the apparently endless waves of ‘gentlemen callers’ she used to receive as a young woman. But you sense that her bafflement that her shy daughter Laura hasn’t followed suit comes from a good place; you’re reminded – in part via the repeated projection of a sepia photograph of their long absconded father – that Amanda raised these kids alone: no easy feat now, let alone in ’20s and ’30s America.
The play is explicitly framed as a memory, that of the older Tom (a seedy, ravaged Paul Hilton) looking back upon these events from some point in the future. And unusually, he seems to look back with warmth. Not only is this take on ‘The Glass Menagerie’ forgiving of Amanda, but Laura too. Played by superb newcomer Lizzie Annis, Laura here is gawky, dorky and lovable – still fundamentally a shy young woman who collects glass animals for a hobby, but more of an awkward nerd than a pitiable recluse. It’s stated in press material and the programme that Annis has cerebral palsy, but beyond a slight limp this isn’t discernible from her performance – perhaps it even gives her licence to not need to play up Laura’s physical ailment (Tom calls her ‘a cripple’ – the assumption is usually that she has had polio as a child). Whatever the case, her face is an astonishing, complicated open book, a world of emotions flickering across it during the course of her unexpected meeting with Victor Alli’s Jim O’Connor, a former school friend with whom she forges a surprising bond when Tom tries to set her up with him.
It’s another moment that plays out more optimistically than usual. Indeed, the only person the production is hard on is the younger Tom, as played by Tom Glynn-Carney: he has some moments of warm companionship with both mother and sister, but he’s also a pugnacious, belligerent, scruffy mess, jacked up on young man’s angst. It seems probable that the end of the story is the last time he ever saw his family – so I think Herrin’s interpretation, in which Tom’s memories of the past are fond and perhaps sentimental, down only on himself, is perfectly legitimate.
However, strip the bitterness and melodrama out of Tennessee Williams and I’m not sure you’re left with nearly as good a play. Next to John Tiffany’s monumental production a few years back, this ‘Menagerie’ feels underpowered. Vicki Mortimer’s glowing glass cabinet set, Ash J Woodward’s projections of light dancing through glass and Nick Powell’s drifting, jazzy sound design give it a stylised strangeness that stops it feeling too cuddly. But it lacks bite. And I’d question the decision to dual cast the role of Tom as young and old versions: it’s technically not unreasonable, but historically it’s always been performed by a single actor, and splitting it turns one major role into two fairly minor ones, with both Hilton and Glynn-Carney feeling somewhat frittered.
It’s a humane and even beautiful take on a classic play, that tries to do something different simply by treating Williams’s characters with the love and affection so often withheld from them. In the not unlikely event that you’re here to see Hollywood star Amy Adams do some good but not showy offy acting, you’re very much covered. But ‘The Glass Menagerie’ is one of the greatest plays ever written, and this production lacks its full, devastating potential.