First Night: The Glass Menagerie, Apollo Theatre, London

Lange strikes a chord as nostalgic grande dame
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The Independent Culture

"I think there's an inherent incapacity in the British to interpret a play that is soaked in American provincialism." So wrote Tennessee Williams in a letter to Helen Hayes, the actress who would play Amanda Wingfield in the London premiere of The Glass Menagerie in 1948.

Jessica Lange, the two-time Oscar-winner, would clearly beg to differ. Her appearance in The Glass Menagerie is the second time she has reinvented a Williams heroine on the London stage, having had an unhappy time with it on her home soil. In 1996 she brought Blanche Dubois to the West End from New York. Now, after an ill-fated Menagerie on Broadway in 2004, it is the turn of an all-new Amanda Wingfield.

The work was Williams's first major success and his most autobiographical play. The portrait of a depressed, Depression-era family - an overbearing mother, painfully shy, crippled daughter and frustrated writer son - has clear similarities with the playwright's upbringing.

Amanda casts a shadow over her "unusual" children. Obsessed by the memory of a day in her beautiful youth when 17 gentlemen callers came to visit, she now turns her obsession to finding a suitor for her daughter. Lange is suitably striking in the role, flitting, with little bird-like movements of her hand, from mollycoddling mother to self-obsessed old crone and, most memorably, a girlish coquette in the company of the gentleman caller.

She is not, though, the standout performance in a uniformly excellent cast. Ed Stoppard is convincing as the narrator through whose tortured memory the action is filtered. Amanda Hale's nervy performance as Laura is as delicate as the glass animals she treasures, and beautifully contrasts with Mark Umbers's robust, strong-jawed, good-natured charm as the long-awaited gentleman caller.

Rupert Goold's production takes time to get going, but once the caller's arrival is imminent it clicks into gear and builds slowly to its tragic climax.

The momentum is helped along by Paul Pyant's lighting, which is exquisite throughout, including the final candlelit scene. As Laura blows out the candles, the feeling that all hope has been extinguished is deliciously overwhelming.

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