Lisa, an overbearing mother, looks after her shy son, Huw, in their home in Camarthenshire, and obsesses over finding him a suitor. Her daughter, Elin, who is visiting from London, comes home with a former student teacher from her school days, Thomas – their intimate evening together is interrupted by Lisa, who mistakenly presumes that she’s considerately brought over a gentleman caller for Huw’s benefit.
Though it slips in hints of its debt to Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie – the central family shares the TW’s surname, and Thomas’s nickname for Huw is Glas, the Welsh word for ‘blue’ – Rhys Warrington and Rebecca Jade Hammond’s new play for Chippy Lane Productions chooses never to explicitly broadcast itself as an adaptation of the American dramatic staple, whether in its publicity materials, free sheet, or within the show itself. It’s a decision I find stranger for my having been oblivious to it until my more Williams-fluent companion mentioned it after the show – but the resemblance is undeniable. The retrospective realisation makes some things about the production make sense; Lisa’s (Nia Roberts) dogged determination to partner Huw off and her Southern belle-ian ideas about proper courtship feel pretty antediluvian when you consider that this is someone who would have come of age post-sexual revolution, for instance.
Her and Huw, based on The Glass Menagerie’s Amanda and Laura Wingfield, feel both more closely attached to their forebears, but also less three-dimensional than the more immediately accessible Elin and Thomas. Huw’s defining characteristic is that he really (really really) likes Minecraft and only has forum friends, which is a lazy kind of shorthand for loneliness – though he’s given a measured and sympathetic portrayal by Gwydion Rhys, and it’s nice to see him become increasingly at ease in the presence of Thomas’s (Jordan Bernarde) cool, comfortable masculinity, with his gently probing questions and teacherly habit of repeating back everything Huw says.
This feels like the Great American Plays of Williams, Miller, O’Neill et al – in its style and its structure. There’s a bottled secret and long harboured familial resentment, exploding in a firework of catharsis at the end. It takes place over the course of a single evening, with scene changes marking short jumps (maybe 20 minutes each?) forward in time. Tic Ashfield’s rather lovely score of lamenting woodwinds feels of a bygone era of languid television plays. Oliver Harman’s cosy set hugs the actors with muted furniture.
But as a whole, it doesn’t commit enough to its own formal contrivance to feel like homage, nor extricate itself from its source material enough to feel naturalistic in a truly contemporary way, instead awkwardly straddling the two. There are nice, natural moments where it hits a flow – a game of charades which brings out both camaraderie and viciousness in mother and daughter is great fun to watch. But for the most part, though these characters look like people living now, they feel unmoored from reality, lost in a theatrical time machine, trapped in a rusty, stilted form.
There’s a glass menagerie in this house too, except this one comprises wood, sand, rusted metal, too: reminders of one person in particular. When the Big Secret is revealed, Warrington and Hammond turn their focus away from Huw’s shyness, from romantic relationships, small towns and leaving home, and towards something not present in their source text: dementia. Suddenly, the play comes into its own, the performances kick up a gear, the stage gets hotter. Grief and the burden of care have been the play’s concerns all along, and it’s merely been wearing the clothes of a polite drawing room play. It’s so much better – more present and purposeful – for stripping its layers off.
BLUE is on at Chapter Arts Centre until 16th February. More info here.