The Glass Menagerie, Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester

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The Independent Culture

Brenda Blethyn is billed as the star of Tennessee Williams's haunting "memory play", The Glass Menagerie. Yet, despite the aching combination of brittle brightness and sense of missed opportunity that she brings to the part of the aging Southern belle Amanda Wingfield, Braham Murray's luminous production is in fact very much an ensemble piece. The intimate in-the-round space adds its own dynamics to the tense interaction between Williams's four characters, Simon Higlett's ingenious set drawing the audience in to the stifling claustrophobia of life in the Wingfields' shabby basement.

An expert in the role of the single mother, Blethyn uses a robust exterior to convey Amanda's unhappy insecurity, her life spent in the confines of memories of happier times and in the vain hope of the success she tries so desperately to impose on her two children. Never resorting to caricature, Blethyn's Amanda – neither crazy nor vicious – comes across as hugely disappointed and painfully well-meaning, her voice, in its Deep South accent, going from wheedling to nagging, modulating between tremulous shrillness, girlish laughter and an elegiac tone edged with despair.

Mark Arends makes Tom Wingfield, the narrator of Williams's autobiographical story, more than usually complex, bitter and angry from the start. The play feels as much about his personal dilemma as the illusion under which his mother lives or the hopeless prospects of his sister. Arends makes a compelling scene-setter, his long fingers conjuring flickering lights and highly strung music as he establishes the play's context from a memory. His whole body – tight poses, exaggerated gestures and jerky movements – conveys his frustration and anger as deadened by the suffocating expectations of his relentlessly domineering mother, his duty as breadwinner, and the routine of a loathsome job in a shoe warehouse.

As Laura Wingfield, physically impeded and emotionally cramped, Emma Hamilton – who shares the same slender physique as her stage brother – comes across as every bit as fragile as the menagerie of glass animals glistening in the dark. Her gradual blossoming in the spotlight of the attentions of the long-awaited gentleman caller is all the more heart-breaking.

The caller himself, roundly portrayed by Andrew Langtree, goes gamely along going with the charade of the supper presided over by the buoyed-up Amanda, while displaying a covert sympathy for Tom. In shattering more than a glass unicorn when it comes to Laura, however, his visit changes their lives for ever, leaving the Wingfield family itself in pieces. Blethyn's dashed hopes make for true drama in a play where illusion is everything.

'The Glass Menagerie' to 24 May (0161 833 9833)

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