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London Theatre Reviews

Brian J Smith, Cherry Jones and Michael Esper/ Ph: Johan Persson

PRIZED UNICORN

By SAM MARLOWE

You've seen it before, but here is reason to see it anew.

Most of us have seen this classic Tennessee Williams memory play many times before. Here, though, is reason to see it again, and anew. John Tiffany’s production gently breathes fresh life into it, turning an old, familiar warhorse into something as scarce and exquisite as a unicorn. The staging is poetic and luminous, with a liquid shimmer, as if viewed through unshed tears. Yet it’s also tough and sinewy, with gorgeous movement by Steven Hoggett that lends it a marvellous fluidity, partnering the drama with a dream-ballet of yearning and disappointment.

Bob Crowley’s design is elegantly sparse, without fussy domestic details. Laura Wingfield’s cherished glass collection is represented purely by her most prized piece, the unicorn, which perches alone on a footstool. A neon crescent moon winks from the Paradise Dance Hall across the alley. The fire escape spirals helter-skelter, twisting
like the horn of the mythical beast, above the Wingfield apartment. Michael Esper’s haunted, restless Tom claims he’s “the opposite of a stage magician,” but there is wonder in the illusions he employs to tell us his family story. As he remembers his fragile sister, Laura – played with raw simplicity by Kate O’Flynn – she materialises out of the upholstery of a sofa. The characters glide from shadow to light and back again, to the sighs and ripples of Nico Muhly’s music.

Cherry Jones as the Wingfield matriarch Amanda is less a fluttery, cracked Southern belle than a tough old broad with a strong streak of pragmatism. She is a woman who feels irreparably cheated by life, exasperated with herself and with her lot, having, despite her best efforts, somehow made all the wrong choices, starting with falling for
her children’s errant father. Her determination to settle the future for Laura is formidable and rather frighteningly hardheaded. When she insists that Tom reveal to her the salary of Jim O’Connor, Laura’s unwitting gentleman caller, she sucks in her cheeks in disapproval and declares in a bark of disdain, “Not princely.” But there’s great tenderness in the portrayal too, especially in the moments when Amanda’s romanticism is mirrored by her son’s, with Esper laying his head upon her shoulder in a gesture of child-like affection. And she can, of course, play the coquette – much to the mortification of Tom and the naked horror of Laura.

There’s a beautifully observed sibling bond, too, between Esper and O’Flynn – a sense of the conspiratorial and of giggling complicity in their resistance to their mother’s demands and pretensions. And Brian J Smith brings multiple facets to Jim – the faintest hint of a young man’s arrogant sneer when he first sets foot in the apartment, a touch of flattered vanity in his connection with O’Flynn’s Laura, who flickers into brief radiance in the warmth of his attentions. It’s a light in Laura this is as quickly extinguished as her candles, but its memory lingers long after the final, poignant moments play out in this, a production of rare loveliness.