Jafar Iqbal delves into Chippy Lane and Rhys Warrington’s re-imagining of Tennessee Williams’ classic ‘The Glass Menagerie’ in Blue.
If Chippy Lane’s second production was to be summed up in one word, that word would almost certainly be ‘love’. Both on- and off-stage, love permeates through every nook and cranny of Blue, Rhys Warrington’s beautiful re-imagining of Tennessee Williams’ classic The Glass Menagerie. While Warrington may have swapped dusky St Louis for the cool Carmarthen coast, those defining narrative beats remain: Lisa, Elin and Huw are the dysfunctional family, their love torn apart by significant loss. Thomas, the unlucky gentleman caller, himself reeling from loss and now caught in a love triangle he didn’t ask for.
Instead of presenting them together immediately the writer chooses to introduce his characters in pairs. They snap and bite at each other, the audience challenged to keep up with Warrington’s sharp and very funny script. The dialogue in these early exchanges feels organic and unrehearsed, and by the time all four characters are finally sat round the dining table the audience has fallen in love with all of them. That naturalistic dialogue starts to fade as the narrative begins to unravel, but it’s replaced by something far more lyrical and equally pleasing.
It’s also where the strength of the creative team really comes to the fore. Chelsey Gillard is a director keen on tableau, so evident here in her use of tint and shade. Like the repaired trinkets on their mantelpiece the three family members are broken, repainted (and dressed) in pastel shades of yellow, blue and green. Gillard’s choice as to who wears which colour is a subtle echo to the power dynamics within the family, while Thomas’ outfit further establishes him as the disruptive force and the potential for new colour in their lives. Oliver Harman’s naturalistic set design is impressive enough, but Gillard finds space for tableau here too. The dining table sits front and centre on stage and as the quartet sits around playing Charades, it looks like a version of Dogs Playing Poker, an apt visual representation for the façade and manipulation taking place.
Blue moves at a deliberately measured pace, the stage darkening as the narrative does. While Tic Ashfield’s ambient compositions are perhaps too obvious in a play so reliant on subtlety, her sound design is exquisite. Something as simple as the pattering of rain in the final minutes of the play brings a suspense to proceedings that, arguably, a set of strings couldn’t. And, of course, in the centre of this melting pot are the actors. Rebecca Jade Hammond has brought together an ensemble cast of the highest quality, and they deliver in spades. The chemistry between all four actors is palpable, nothing comes across contrived. The sexual tension between Sophie Melville and Jordan Bernarde feels organic, as does the familial tension between Melville and Nia Roberts, playing mother Lisa. As good as they are, though – and all three are very good – it’s Gwydion Rhys who gives the standout performance as Huw. In previous productions Rhys has demonstrated what a magnetic stage presence he can be but he dials it right back down here. Hands in his pockets, head bowed, his voice hardly rising above an audible whisper, the character feels almost secondary to the rest. As he begins to become the focal point of the story, though, his body language changes ever so slightly, the voice ever so louder. The versatility shown is outstanding.
Considering the slow-burn of the narrative up until that point, Blue seems to end rather abruptly. Not every question is answered – it couldn’t be – but there’s the sense that Warrington has tried to wrap everything up in a bow. Given what the audience have learnt about the characters, it doesn’t seem like the appropriate place for a bittersweet moment. That’s a small flaw, though, in what is otherwise an exceptionally produced piece of theatre. It goes back to that feeling of love – its obvious from the performances and attention to detail creatively that Blue comes from a place of deep care and affection. Like the characters in the play Chippy Lane have proven that, with the right tools, an old trinket can be made new and great again.
Jafar Iqbal is a theatre critic and an associate editor of Wales Arts Review