Joy in the moment;Reviews;Set plays;Theatre

5th June 1998 at 01:00
THE GLASS MENAGERIE. By Tennessee Williams. Derby Playhouse.

Mark Clements, director of The Glass Menagerie, has been reading Tennessee Williams's short story "Portrait of a Girl in Glass", written in 1943. It focuses on what became the final scene of the play, in which Amanda Wingfield is disappointed to find the first man to call on her shy daughter already has a fiancee. Of the girl, Laura, the storysimply says: "She lived in a world of glass and also a world of music." So it's no surprise that the play's line, "In memory everything seems to happens to music", is quoted in the publicity for Derby Playhouse.

The two qualities Clements believes important in the drama are humour and love. Yes, humour. All the characters are trapped: Tom needs to escape to explore his artistic and possibly sexual nature; Amanda is trapped in memories of a gracious past living in southern comfort; and Laura in her world of glass. Perhaps Jim, the outsider and ex-high school golden boy who has ended up in the warehouse alongside the narrator - Laura's brother Tom - is the most trapped in his delusion that he is going to make good in the world of wireless. Clements compares him to the school role-model turned petty thief Biff Loman in Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman.

But humour there is, says Clements, amid this picture of "the complexities, joys, hard-ships and heartaches of family life". Tom, for example, enjoys teasing his mother when he announces someone is coming to call on Laura. There is "joy and elation are in the moment", says Clements, but in this play they don't last. The most poignant example is Laura's happiness when she dances with Jim. "He brings out the woman in her", and the confidence she discovers in herself is an important corrective to the all-retiring, all-suffering image some productions convey.

"The sad thing about Laura is that there's nothing really wrong with her. Amanda exacerbates her daughter's lack of self-confidence by being desperately over-protective." It's possible Jim isn't just being polite when he claims to remember her being late for lessons but never noticed she came in clumping with a deformity. "Laura is at ease in scenes with Tom; it's when, for example, her mother sends her to the grocer's to ask for goods on credit that she fears the tradesman's derisory comments and retreats into herself." (Williams and his sister Rose, the original for Laura, were mocked in their St Louis school for their unfamiliar accents.) However much Amanda's love suffocates, it's vital a production makes us see her not just as "the flighty, babbling southern belle. You should never lose sight, however frustrating she becomes, of her pain at the circumstances that have brought her to the family's present dismal situation, making her a social pariah whose isolation exacerbates her social ineptness."

* Timothy Ramsden

Derby Playhouse June l9-July 4. Tickets: 01332 363275. Tours to Newcastle-upon-Tyne Theatre Royal July 6-11, Oxford Playhouse July 13-l8, Bath Theatre Royal July 20-25

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