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Black Swan’s The Glass Menagerie Proves Why the Play is a Classic

For many students of literature and drama, The Glass Menagerie has been a staple part of their curriculum. Unfortunately, and certainly in my experience, it’s presented in a dry and uninteresting way which fails to appreciate Tennessee Williams’ exceptional writing.

Clare Watson’s interpretation of The Glass Menagerie proves this play is anything but boring and dry, instead highlighting the true value of this brilliant script.

There are several areas that contributed to the success of this production but none more so than the cast, featuring Mandy McElhinney as Amanda Wingfield, Joel Jackson as Tom Wingfield, Acacia Daken as Laura Wingfield and Jake Fryer-Hornsby as Jim O’Connor, The Gentleman Caller.

Mandy’s characterisation of Amanda was full of intricacies that built into an enthralling, hilarious and, quite frankly, camp performance. Amanda is often referred to as a controlling mother and is seen as the catalyst for her son’s departure from the family. In this portrayal, we witnessed Amanda as a selfless figure who is doing everything she possibly can, given her circumstances, to set her children up for a secure future; one she has not had herself. Sure, she hassles her son about little things and gets on his nerves, but it’s certainly not unusual behaviour from a mother or as ‘demanding’ as Tom would perhaps have people believe.

The combination of Joel (as Tom) and Mandy tapped into the true dynamic of mother and son. Their arguments and makeups were littered with relatable humour making Tom’s decision to leave all the more disappointing and devastating.

Joel Jackson and Mandy McElhinney in The Glass Menagerie. Photography by Daniel J Grant.

Acacia’s portrayal of frail and shy Laura was also painstakingly accurate. We clearly saw the result of a painful and traumatic childhood, which had taken its toll both mentally and physically on her character. Acacia and Clare’s choice to opt for a different way to demonstrate Laura’s disability was respectful and perhaps made more sense, given the script’s context clues, than the usual depiction of a limp or leg brace. You can read more about that choice and Acacia’s experience with her own disability here.

As the long-awaited “gentleman caller”, Jim O’Connor, Jake perfectly (but also rather frustratingly) reminded me that men have been “mansplaining” since the 1930s. I have never rolled my eyes more than when Jim diagnoses Laura with an inferiority complex.

Acacia Daken in The Glass Menagerie. Photography by Daniel J Grant.

The combined effort of the cast left me feeling empathetic towards each character, even Jim slightly, as they battled between personal wants and societal expectations. It was evident these characters exist in a world void of the freedom to explore personal passions without making detrimental sacrifices.  

Each scene was accompanied by Tom O’Halloran playing the piano, which contributed to the show’s overall cinematic feel. There were times where the music met the actors in a way that made me believe they would launch into song (which I would’ve welcomed as a MT advocate).

Fiona Bruce’s set cleverly placed Tom at the back of the stage, on a slightly higher level than the performers and only just visible through some screens. The set design embraced the art deco style of the era with a large frame, with rounded edges, that separated downstage and upstage. I did experience visibility issues as a result of the apartment balcony which led to watching scenes at the dining table with bars blocking my view.

I’m extremely grateful each time I watch a classic performed in a way that proves why it has become a “classic” and subsequently a staple in curriculums. It’s also a reminder that shows such as The Glass Menagerie are not so simply picked up and performed, they require dedicated artists and performers to dive deep and analyse the text beyond its surface. This is the version students of this play need to see.

The Glass Menagerie presented by Black Swan State Theatre Company is on now at His Majesty’s Theatre and runs until the 21st of August.