Theater Week: Glass Menagerie; The girl at the altar; We started singing Theater

Tthe problems begin with the menagerie itself: a cabinet looming, with creatures lined up as if rehearsing for Damien Hirst Lifeless forms. The marvelous image of the fragility, secret light, and uniqueness of Tennessee Williams becomes solid and confrontational in Jeremy Herrin’s production: under some lights, it looks like a vending machine.

Glass menagerie, one of the most emotional performances of the 20th century, is made up of uncertainty and trepidation. First produced in 1944, but set in the 1930s, the narrator states that it happens while Europe and America are in progress. A fictional depiction of Williams’ early life, depicting a family falling apart: a sister of precarious health; a dominant mother, obsessed with her own youth; a young man struggling to leave. The performance of remembrance, framed by speeches given by an older version of the son, was declared a soluble, unreliable report.

Vicki Mortimer’s set suggests some dream disorder. The shop is located on a stage surrounded by a mess of lamps, chairs and turntables. Still, this is overshadowed by Ash J Woodward’s vague videos that confusingly mix up a realistic background – the Iron Stairs – with suggestions of miasm. The characterization is rough. Amy Adams, who debuts in the West End and advertises herself as the draw of the evening, is as convincing as the frustrated housewife, who is bustling and chirping, getting up in a bun and a bathrobe so she looks like she jumped out of a cowardly watch. Yet she seems never to be haunted by her days of southern beauty: her voice remains at the same (high) pitch; when she crawls into the dress she wore as a little girl, she is rightly awkward as she stretches her folds, but she never casts the spell of melancholy again.

The play is far more effective if all the characters are drawn to the memories. One actor usually plays a son, in his youth and as a narrator: here the role is divided into two parts, played by the melancholy Paul Hilton and, as the younger, Tom Glynn-Carney; both are underused, and a layer of smearing time is lost. The highlight of the evening is a scene between the strong Victor Alli as a conventional, unintentionally wounded “inviting gentleman” and Lizzie Annis as a shy, miserable Laura. Annis, who is described in the program as suffering from cerebral palsy, is debuting on the professional scene with a real uncertain glow. She is like a glass creature on a slippery platform.

Eileen Walsh has been passionately present on the scene since she appeared as a teenager rapping Ende Walsh’s fictional language in Disco Pigs. Now she’s burning The girl at the altarThe reimagination of Marina Carr is the story of Clytemnestra, the mother of Iphigenia, sacrificed by her father Agamemnon to appease the gods and ensure the success of her fleet.

David Walmsley and Eileen Walsh in Girl on an Altar at the Kiln.
David Walmsley and Eileen Walsh as Agamemnon and Clytemnestra in The Girl at the Altar: ‘A Secular Ritual in Arbitrarily Cruel, Revengeful Times’. Photo: Peter Searle

Annabelle Comyn’s prominent production for Kiln (in partnership with the Abbey Theater, Dublin) combines two strong trends in current theater: using classical Greek literature to provide secular ritual in arbitrarily harsh, vengeful times, and retelling stories from the perspective of previously buried women. The prophetess Cassandra, abducted from Troy – who herself would be a powerful theme for the drama – has a prominent role, played with melancholy patience by Nina Bowers, as well as Cilissa’s nurse, the impressive Kate Stanley Brennan. David Walmsley jerks him hard like an angry Agamemnon, approaching a woman who wants and hates him.

Violent action – involving a body in a silver tub and horrific searches for missing children – is often ritualized; its details are described more often than seen. The actors are their own choir. They are often still – captured in magnificent movements like figures on a Greek vase – but Carr’s tight, persistent tongue and glowing design of Tom Piper (set) and Amy Mae (lighting) create a horrible evening. In contrast to black sliding walls with shutters that allow only light to penetrate, Walmsley is often illuminated in red. Enormous creepiness is delivered with restrained force: “evil and the blade in the air”.

Beautiful subtlety… Barbara Flynn and Robin Soans in We Started to Sing.
Beautiful subtlety… Barbara Flynn and Robin Soans in We Started to Sing. Photo: Alex Brenner

Earlier this year playwright Barney Norris and his father, pianist David Owen Norris, staged a “piano play”, crossing autobiographical thinking with music. His new drama resonates this: family history is interwoven with Dido’s Lament and folk song – and a hint of Housman’s “blue remembered hills”. We started singing he would have more convictions to be called an autobiography as well; as it is, sweet fragments of memory meander in search of a reason to stage.

Home videos follow key moments in the lives of three generations of the family: most have to do with relocation; they are all composed of stubborn naturalistic dialogue, full of domestic details about packaging and schools (Barney’s reading is commendable). A preventive blow to criticism is made by laughing at performances in which nothing happens except that people look back. Two plays elevate the opportunity: Robin Soans is tense: alternately irritable, ingenious and touching. Barbara Flynn, so enchantingly knows on 80s television (Beiderbecke affair i A Very Special practice) beautifully arranges its subtlety: a lively conscience, a winking wit.

Star rating (out of five)
Glass menagerie
★★
The girl at the altar ★★★★
We started singing ★★

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