Theatre; THE GLASS MENAGERIE, Donmar Warehouse, London

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The Independent Culture
The timing is exquisite. First you announce that your unfunded theatre is facing the threat of imminent closure (owners no longer prepared to underwrite losses, three-year sponsorship deal with a TV company coming to its close). The next day, you unveil a well-nigh flawlessly lovely production of The Glass Menagerie, thereby offering a piercing reminder of the quality of work that London would lose if the Donmar Warehouse under Sam Mendes were allowed to go dark.

The exquisiteness is very much not confined to the timing. Without ever lapsing into the precious or fey, Mendes's staging does rich, imaginative justice to the poetic atmosphere that needs to haunt this memory play, giving events the psychological feel of being mediated through the edgy, troubled consciousness of the son, here acted with a terrific restless intensity and defensive aggression by Ben Chaplin.

Rob Howell's excellent design, for example, heightens the oppressiveness of the St Louis apartment by means of a vast iron fire- escape trailing down the whole of the theatre's blue-lit back wall and continuing in an audience-surrounding overhead walkway. Its length and metallic clatter give an added dramatic charge to entrances and exits, which is apt in this play where the mother dreams of a "gentleman caller" for her crippled daughter Laura, and the son is desperate to escape.

Evoking the luminous fragility of the eponymous collection, Jason Carr's music is a thin shower of tinkling droplets, but one that falls with a certain nagging, treadmill insistence as if symbolising the stalled state of Laura's life. Resembling a delicate, translucent figurine herself, Claire Skinner might have been evolved by nature expressly to satisfy Williams's stipulation that this girl should be "like a piece of her own glass collection - too exquisitely fragile to move from the shelf".

Her candle-lit scene with Mark Dexter's excellent Jim, the boy she had idolised from a distance during their schooldays, is almost unendurably painful as her hopes are first raised and then dashed. It's a more than slightly manipulative piece of writing, but your objections evaporate when you see it played as truthfully as it is here. In the comically gauche way he starts to expand and present himself as a success-story-in-the- making in the presence of this fan from his distant glory days, Dexter makes you appreciate that it is not just Skinner's tensed-up, achingly blighted Laura whose life has not blossomed as expected.

But, then, this is a production where, notwithstanding the memory-play framework, you're continually allowed to glimpse people from their own point of view. Zoe Wanamaker has some wonderfully funny moments as the mother who has protected her children to death. The scene in which this faded Southern belle unleashes several years' worth of girlish social charm on an astounded Jim is particularly memorable.

But from the actress's humorous and touching performance, you also see why this deserted wife has been driven to her fuss-pot paranoia and don't feel inclined to scorn the indomitability she has had to develop to survive. Given Ms Wanamaker's relative youth, you're forced to ask why the mother never remarried or wonder whether the children she's smothered with concern are her equivalent of the glass menagerie.

n To 5 Nov. Booking: 0171-369 1732