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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at the Young Vic


  Leo Bill, Kyle Soller, Deborah Findlay and Sinead Matthews/ Ph: Simon Annand

Directors of Tennessee Williams’ classic heartbreaker usually ignore the playwright’s exigent stage directions, and with good reason. The writing is so vivid, so lyrical and so delicately devastating that it simply does not need the kind of Expressionist window dressing that its creator envisioned for it. Indeed, as this production by Joe Hill-Gibbins demonstrates, it can instead be stifled by such intrusive touches as an overly tricksy design and intrusive underscoring. Still, there’s something courageous in Hill-Gibbins’ efforts to reconcile the complete vision of the play’s creator with the demands of audiences for whom the work has become an oft-revived staple. And his success in marrying the two without marring the quietly tragic beauty of the drama is no small achievement.
A self-conscious theatricality is signaled from the outset. Designer Jeremy Herbert has a red velvet curtain rise over a set that features such backstage touches as a bulb-framed mirror and a dressing-room door complete with star. On an upper level, multi-instrumentalist Simon Allen and acclaimed keyboardist Eliza McCarthy perform a score by film and theatre composer Dario Marianelli that features doomy piano and the high-pitched whine of a finger run around the rim of a wet wineglass.
These encompass, and occasionally overpower, the domestic setting of the St Louis apartment, where fading Southern belle Amanda Wingfield, her fragile daughter Laura and her mutinous, would-be writer son Tom make up an uneasy ménage in genteel poverty. It also, of course, houses the only objects that give Laura any real pleasure: the old gramophone and her collection of miniature glass animals. The arrival of Jim, Amanda’s longed-for “gentleman caller” – the nice young man who will marry Laura and save her from an isolated, hopeless existence – shatters not just the unicorn, the most prized creature in Laura’s menagerie, but the dreams of both mother and daughter.
It’s the scene in which that desolate outcome doesn’t seem inevitable – when it seems for a while as if happiness might just be within the characters’ grasp – that is the play’s aching heart, and it beats resonantly here. Kyle Soller gives a masterly performances as Jim, the one-time high-school hero who has never fulfilled all the bright potential of his youth and is never likely to do so. His candlelit scene with Sinead Matthews’ Laura sees him reveling in the idealised, nostalgic memory of him that she has held dear ever since they sang in the school choir together. There is as much pathos there as in Laura’s recognition of the possibility that they can never be anything more to one another – and in Soller’s self-reproachful acknowledgement of the false hope and hurt that he has unwittingly meted out.
Leo Bill makes a bitter, bony Tom, his gestures tinged with an ironic, actorly colour and his clashes with his overbearing mother at times ferocious. As for Deborah Findlay’s Amanda, she’s unusually robust and sturdy. Matthews isn’t afraid to give us a Laura who, hunched and tremulous, we sometimes want to shake – and that’s clearly the effect she has on Amanda. The sharp tongue, the skilled emotional manipulation, the bullying, willful blindness are all there in Findlay’s rendering. What’s missing is a sense of frailty or wistfulness, a true sense of a craving for a perfumed and elegant past that would make her more emotionally vulnerable. There are times when you wish Hill-Gibbins’ staging, too, would lower its voice; but in its finest moments, it still seeps Williams’ haunting melancholy.

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