"The scene is memory and is therefore non-realistic. Memory takes a lot of poetic license," writes Tennessee Williams in his introductory stage direction to the 1944 play that propelled him into the major league of American dramatists. Joe Hill-Gibbins takes him at his word in this magnificent production, a revival that is as conceptually fresh as it is emotionally devastating.
The proceedings begin in startling fashion. Under harsh house lights, the Depression-era Wingfield tenement flat seems suspended in some weird rehearsal room of the mind. Its furnishings look like props. The overbearing mother and crippled, painfully shy daughter sit immobilised at the dinner table. Tom, the aspiring-poet son who flew this stifling nest, descends a lofty fire escape, lights a cigarette before a large "No Smoking" sign and gestures the play into being. A scarlet half-curtain rises and the scene floods with provisional life.
Throughout, there is a striking emphasis on Tom being the stage-manager of his memories. This is shown in his signalling for moody incidental music from the pianist and glass harmonica player on the balcony, or pointing out (in a wonderfully witty touch) the dressing-room door from which the long-awaited gentleman caller will emerge, or picturing his mother and sister wafting a white table cloth into the air as they clear up after dinner, a nostalgic image of a playful intimacy that never existed in reality. This tactic pulls us into the way that, for all his sardonic commentary, Tom cannot stop wrestling with the past he had hoped to evade.
Leo Bill captures the character's cabin fever and frantic frustration, but then all of the cast dig deep into the play's searching emotional truth. As Amanda, the domineering mother who has had to battle to bring up her children alone, Deborah Findlay conveys the suffocating oppressiveness of her ceaselessly prattling over-protection and her maddening mix of pragmatic suspicion and tyrannical fantasy. At first, I thought she was underplaying Amanda's delusions of old-world grandeur but she was clearly saving them for the perfectly deranged overdrive of Southern belle girlish flirtation to which she subjects Jim, the gentleman caller.
There is excruciating pathos as well as hilarious comedy here. Sinéad Matthews and Kyle Soller are beyond praise in the climactic, candle-lit scene in which the fragile romantic hopes of Laura are raised and then dashed by the gentleman caller's well-meaning but ill-considered attention. With her scratchy voice, painful stammer and jerky movements, Matthews shows the courage it takes for this abashed, tremulous creature to emerge from her shell and the aching generosity with which she accepts her fate. Soller indicates the degree to which Jim is damaged too, his nervy ebullience and almost huckster-like fervour about the power of self-belief stemming, it seems, from the disillusion of a high-school star who failed to live up to his promise.
To 1 January (020 7922 2922)