This last week has been an exhausting one for the West End Whingers. One Sondheim, half a Chekhov and a pair of Pinters took their collective toll on Andrew who by last night was beginning to go down with the sniffles.
Clutching a tissue to his nose, he complained he must have picked something up from last night’s Seagull – a touch of avian flu, perhaps?
But ever-the-trouper and determined (unlike many of today’s so-called stars) to turn up to every performance, Andrew raised himself from his sick bed to join Phil and would-be whinger David to a see Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie, previewing at the Apollo Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue. Could Dr Theatre’s curative powers work for as well for an audience member as the thespians claim it does for them?
In a St Louis apartment erstwhile southern belle Amanda Wingfield (Jessica Lange) lives in reduced circumstances with her children. Son Tom spends his days working in a warehouse to support the family and his evenings escaping at the movies. His painfully shy “cripple” sister Laura spends her time playing the phonograph and tending to her collection of delicate glass animals. So far, so symbolic, so Tennessee Williams.
Amanda is desperate to secure her daughter’s welfare by finding her a suitor and cajoles Tom into finding a “gentleman caller” for Laura, reminiscing about her own glorious youth when she received seventeen callers in one afternoon. The whingers sat up at this point.
After a decidedly dodgy start with problems of audibility (even from the second row of the stalls the whingers were struggling to hear Lange) things started to pick up midway through the first act and although she lacked some of the vulnerability and sheer barminess* the whingers were expecting, once into her stride her naturalistic performance completely won us over.
No such problems out of the starting block for Ed Stoppard whose fine portrayal of Tom is compelling from the start.
By the end of the first act all three of us were engrossed, but nothing prepared us for what was to come in the astonishing second act.
The first treat was the scene in which Lange – dressed up in faded finery from her days as a southern belle – reverts to her flirtatious youth as she entertains the gentleman caller (Mark Umbers). Lange (under-)plays the scene with a lightness of touch which makes her former life totally believable – no grotesquery here. And it’s a testament to her performance that the whingers – who will always opt for “grotesque” if there’s a choice – were enthralled.
But even this is completely overshadowed by the mesmerising candlelit scene between the gentleman caller and newcomer Amanda Hale‘s credibly fragile Laura. This very long, quiet and moving scene was utterly engrossing with actors giving quite extraordinary performances.
Hale has few credits in the programme notes and is quite a find. If the whingers had hearts, they would surely have been as broken as a glass unicorn by her. If Amanda Hale doesn’t win a “best newcomer” award in the next round of gongs, the whingers will eat their hats – including the ostrich feathers.
Credit must also be given to director Rupert Goold for the restraint and naturalism he applies to Williams’ play.
Andrew believes that designer Matthew Wright‘s set is one of the most carefully designed he has ever seen on the stage. It has a touch of Magritte about it and a domestic echo of the proscenium. The vertical dimension of the fire escape provides effective visual expressions of the “rock bottom” in which the family is trapped and Tom’s desire to escape. It’s all atmospherically lit by Paul Pyant to express the “memory” theme of the play.
Regular readers will know that the whingers like their evenings at the theatre to be on the short side in order to not break into their drinking time. But even though The Glass Menagerie scuppered their hopes of a post show drink at 2 hours 50 minutes, (half an hour longer than the estimated running time) for once they weren’t complaining. In fact Andrew had all but forgotten his malady. Clearly Dr Theatre was in the house; this production is a tonic.
* As good as Lange is, the programme notes tell of the brilliant original Amanda, Laurette Taylor whose career was in sharp decline after a glorious past. “Famously alcoholic, eccentric and rather grand” and the inspiration for Judith Bliss in Noel Coward’s Hay Fever. The pre-New York try out was apparently delayed after she went missing on a bender. The whingers drank a toast to her memory.
Two thumbs-up from the West End Whingers
- There was a bit of a kerfuffle at the theatre bar in the interval when the whingers were charged an astonishing £20.20 for three glasses of wine. It turned out that the price of the “full-bodied” glass they had been offered was £7 so they sent that back and decanted the two remaining glasses into three cups to share between them. Shame on you Nimex Theatres.
- Compare this with the bargain £22 or so they paid for their second row stalls seats at the TKTS booth on Leicester Square. Our gain was the production’s loss. The Whingers had originally tried to buy 11 tickets for a group outing (group tickets being £25 each) but on phoning to book had been told that these were not available during the previews. In spite of our protests that this restriction was not stated on the website, Mr Kenwright’s representatives turned down our offer to hand them over £225 in ready cash. No wonder it’s so hard to make money in the West End.