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The Glass Menagerie review at Watford Palace Theatre – ‘confusing reimagining of Tennessee Williams’ play’

Tennessee Williams’ memory play, The Glass Menagerie, contains many autobiographical elements. Williams’ mother had a personality disorder and his sister was said to be mentally fragile; it’s a deeply personal piece.

Williams set his play in 1930s America, in St Louis. In Femi Elufowoju Jr’s production, the sound of Louis Armstrong plays softly on a gramophone in a corner of Rebecca Brower’s cramped apartment set. The Wingfield family has to clamber up and down a rickety fire escape to hang their laundry. Arnim Friess’ warm, sepia-toned lighting reminds us we are in a memory.

What comes across less clearly is the purpose of this reimagining which places an African American family at the centre of the narrative. When gentleman caller Jim (Charlie Maher) – a white man – tells Laura Wingfield (Naima Swaleh) – a black woman with a physical disability – that the way to overcome her inferiority complex is to simply think of herself as superior, it doesn’t ring true.

Contextually, we’re in the time of Jim Crow Laws and, though St Louis is geographically mid-western, it’s historically a southern state. Segregation was rife: it’s difficult to fathom that a black Laura and a white Jim would have become closely acquainted at all – let alone in high school.

August Wilson famously criticised the practice of casting black people in plays written specifically with white people in mind. It’s not that it can never work, but it needs to be more carefully handled than it is here. The ensemble cast is great, the performances strong, but Elufowoju Jr’s production doesn’t seem to have considered precisely what it wants to say.

Verdict
Tennessee Williams’ classic play is reimagined with an African American family to confusing effect

Production Information

Production
The Glass Menagerie
Venue
Watford Palace Theatre
City
Watford
Starts
May 3, 2019
Ends
May 25, 2019
Press night
May 8, 2019
Authors
Tennessee Williams
Director
Femi Elufowoju Jr
Choreographer
Kemi Durosinmi (movement direction)
Set
Rebecca Brower
Lighting
Arnim Freiss
Sound
Yvonne Gilbert
Stage manager
Maddie Baylis
Cast includes
Michael Abubakar, Lesley Ewen, Charlie Maher, Naima Swaleh
Producer
Watford Palace Theatre, Arcola Theatre
Running time
2hrs 15mins