BAC (Battersea Arts Centre), London SW11
Opened 30 June, 1998

BAC's main house seats around 250 people. At Wednesday's press performance of The Glass Menagerie, perhaps two dozen places were occupied. Admittedly, the show's London opening had been put back to an evening when most of my critical confrères were whistling down Lord Lloyd Webber's wind in the West End, but nevertheless, a 10% house on opening night is frightening. I only wish I could say that this production deserved better.

Brian Blessed seems to have chosen his theatrical directorial debut with a view to emphasising that there is more to him than the cliched "facial hair, crampons and VOLUME!" image. However, his idea of putting an original slant upon Tennessee Williams's play is largely confined to having the narrator-figure and authorial surrogate Tom snap his fingers or make arm gestures to cue most, but not all lighting changes and sound effects. Indeed, at one point we are even offered the venerable "false ending to the music" gag. It seems a hideous misjudgement, and elicited neither of the two audible laughs in the production's two-and-a-half-hour duration.

As the matriarch of the family, reduced from turn-of-the-century Louisiana gentry to living in a St Louis apartment building barely supported by her warehouseman son, Blessed's wife Hildegard Neil is brittly efficient but never evokes the full weight of oppressive nostalgia which so alienates Tom and stifles his sister Laura. Mark Burgess as Tom is likewise competent, although several years too old and hampered by what I described cruelly in my notes as "a DJ's mid-Atlantic accent" (before finding in his biography that he has indeed worked as a regional radio announcer). The only note of subtlety is injected by Phillipa Peak, who downplays the disability of the chronically diffident Laura rather than the usual calipers and visible hirpling, Peak and Blessed go for the mere suggestion of some kind of armature beneath Laura's woollen stocking and a similarly discreet tendency to favour her "good" leg. Peak also makes Laura's nervous attacks at the prospect of finally having a "gentleman caller" less operatic than usual, and her silent suffering on the young man's departure is the one unambiguously powerful moment in the evening. As for the rest of it... everyone remembers their lines and no-one bumps into the furniture except when required to but life is frankly too short for another undistinguished production of a Williams classic.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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