THEATRE / Smouldering fires: Jeffrey Wainwright on Tennessee Williams's The Glass Menagerie at the Octagon Theatre, Bolton

Tennessee Williams's stage directions for The Glass Menagerie describe the building where the Wingfields live as 'burning with the slow and implacable fires of human desperation'. These fires are evident from the play's first moments but so heavily are they tamped that in production their subdued smouldering translates into a problem of pace.

For this family, life has become virtually immobile. Tom, the son, beating his fledgling poet's wings against the walls of a dead- end job, knows this. His mother Amanda, the misplaced Southern belle floating in a deluded haze of expectation, could never admit it. Laura, the daughter, is its symbol - unable to face the world outside the apartment, she immures herself in the imaginary world of her glass animals. The story inches forwards, so that to begin with, besides catching the details, all that can happen is that we are drawn curiously towards the slow fire.

In Vicky Featherstone's new production we are only just pulled close enough during this first half. As Laura, Catherine Cusack creates an enigmatic enough presence to maintain anticipation of when she might break open. Nicholas Murchie as Tom, who is also our narrator, captures well the mix of despair and wise-cracking, disabused cynicism that he has made his defence. But in this phase so much depends upon the animation of Amanda. It is a rich and wonderful part, full of verbal key-notes in her flights of memory, fantasy and reproof. Mary Cunningham has a particular way of saying 'future' which highlights the 't' so that it is nearly a syllable on its own. This is exactly right since Amanda lives for a future that she cannot distinguish from her past, and the tic exactly represents the affectation that has become her whole character. But Amanda is also doomed to repeat herself, and it is a very difficult task to create sufficient modulation through one variation after another so as not to tire an audience, and Mary Cunningham does not appear tomanage this. A greater rein to the humour might be allowed without risking the play's essential melancholy.

Any production is eventually going to welcome the step forward that comes when Jim, the longed-for 'gentleman caller', eventually arrives. With Raymond Coulthard we are not disappointed. Williams calls him 'a nice, ordinary young man', and the fascination is how far that description is ironic. Coulthard gives him a scrubbed sunny face and courtly self-assurance which blurs the tantalising line between natural grace and the patina of self-improvement. Since we know that one thing Laura is vehement about is the virtue of sincerity, their scene together is the most absorbing, and they play it together with the utmost delicacy. It is the brief encounter of two worlds, or rather fantasies: Jim's notion of the zippiness of modern America and Laura's animation of the glass menagerie. The tragedy is that we are not sure which of them will live most sadly ever after.

At the Octagon to 1 Oct (Box-office: 0204 20661)

(Photograph omitted)

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