Even if Williams had written nothing else, I suspect the play would have endured. Although it’s often revived, John Tiffany’s production (originally seen on Broadway in 2013, briefly last summer in Edinburgh, now at the grand old Duke of York’s for two months or so) casts a greater, more shiver-making spell than most.
“Yes, I have tricks in my pocket,” Michael Esper’s scene-setting Tom tells us, and Tiffany (lest we need reminding, the director of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child) has a few of his own. A star-field of lights magically appears at times in the oily, reflective lagoon with which designer Bob Crowley surrounds the hexagonal pontoons of living-room floor. Looming over it all is a black-as-night void, with metallic fire-escape stairs telescoping upwards. Kate O’Flynn’s Laura, Tom’s sister, lame-footed and crippled by shyness, unforgettably makes her entrance through the middle of the sofa, as if hauled out from the recesses of his mind.
But this isn’t a “look-at-me” affair, it’s more “listen-to-this” – let the melancholy strains of piano and violin seep in; savour the domestic subtleties.
It has been said before (by me included) that American stage-star Cherry Jones, making her West End debut, is perfect as Amanda, the former southern belle who frets night and day about her troublesome two, clinging to memories of the “gentlemen callers” who once courted her and hoping that some special male – procured by Tom – will be charmed enough by Laura to sweep her off her feet.
Williams’s description of Amanda alludes to “endurance and a kind of heroism” as much as risible neurosis – qualities Jones effortlessly elicits. Just as she steels herself to make humiliating cold-calls to the lapsing subscribers of a journal “for matrons”, so she wears an expression of warm good cheer like a mask. It’s her keeping up of decorous appearances that breaks your heart. Hers is a wonderfully animated performance too: she holds court at the dinner table like some visionary political orator, later tight-rope walks across the carpet in histrionic excitement, arms flailing. You sense that she’s as confined as the son she goads and nags.
Kate O’Flynn remains an understated, introverted marvel as Laura – with eyes initially only for her miniature glass animals and the wind-up gramophone, gulping her words in her gaucheness, looking as if she wished the ground she clumped on would swallow her up. The late-evening brief encounter between her and Brian J Smith as Jim, her long-time high-school crush, begins on a note of tender tragi-comedy, moves into a register of romance as glorious as anything you’ll see in La La Land and ends up with all hopes shattered: as if an atom bomb had been detonated here, the world never the same again from that moment on.
Author: Dominic Cavendish