The production opens with a beautifully executed visual flourish, a splash of stage magic, but though a solid attempt has been made to integrate these elements into the production (that superb opening moment being a good example) some of the early scenes feel heavy and tethered. Things only really coalesce in the second half when many of the stylistic devices are dropped and Williams’ dialogue is allowed to stand alone.
Amanda, the Wingfield matriarch is an ageing southern belle transplanted to a St Louis tenement but still ‘clinging frantically to another place and time’, to her girlhood in Blue Mountain where she once entertained seventeen gentlemen callers in one afternoon. Terrified that her daughter Laura, a desperately shy girl whose chief pleasures are her Victrola records and her collection of tiny glass animals, will end up an old maid, she pesters her son Tom – an overt stand-in for Williams - to invite one of his warehouse colleagues to dinner.
It is the scene between Laura and the Jim, the gentleman caller, a man she hankered after at high school, which makes this production sing rather than hum. Until this point it totters along - there are moments of overplaying and sudden shifts in tone - but a kind of calm descends when Jim arrives at the door.
As in his recent Young Vic production of The Beauty Queen of Leenane, Hill-Gibbins is fond of placing actors at the very front of the stage with their backs to the audience during key exchanges, thus shifting the attention to the face of the listener. In this context it’s a successful tactic, creating a connecting thread between the audience and Laura, allowing them to study her face as it relaxes and brightens. Played out against a white dividing curtain, Williams’ rich dialogue, with all its pathos, humour and warmth, is foregrounded.
As Amanda, Deborah Findlay is sturdier than the mother described by Williams and she uses this as an advantage. Decked out in the lace and sparkle of her cotillion dress, she captures some of the poignant absurdity of this middle aged woman giggling and flirting with abandon, but she also captures her fierce maternal spirit, her nous (women, she declares as she buttons Laura into a hill of frills and ribbon, are “pretty traps”) and her determination to provide a secure future for her daughter.
In the publicity material Sinead Matthews’ Laura is shown with glorious, almost white blonde hair, but in the production itself, she is saddled with a mousy, lumpy wig and her performance sometimes seems like a collection of tics – a limp, a (not always convincing) stutter – her fragility more external than internal, but this changes as the play progresses. When Jim arrives Laura emerges as a person: brave, funny and self-knowing.
Leo Bill is angular and aggressive as Tom, the shoebox Shakespeare longing for escape; his frustration with his lot is evident even in the rapid, ravenous way in which he eats. Kyle Soller, given permission by the text to be ‘a nice ordinary young man’, is charming and self-confident as Jim, his performance less heightened than the others, his character vain but not unperceptive and not unkind, a man not unfamiliar with disappointment.
Dominated by a smiling photo of the absent father in his army cap, Jeremy Herbert’s set is an inside-outside affair, combining fire escapes and raw brick walls with the trappings of the Wingfield apartment. The music is supplied live by a pianist and percussionist perched up on the gallery; the latter, appropriately, has a collection of glasses at his disposal. It is, however, the snippets of song coming from the dancehall across the street that have the biggest emotional impact. As Jim and Laura listen he asks her to dance with him and, after some hesitation, she gives in; she dances.