Leaves Of Glass (Theatre Review)

Leaves Of Glass (Theatre Review)


An elder brother remembers family incidents and circumstances in a completely different way from his younger sibling; there is no denying that something has occurred but the details are radically different. The two men live within the certainty of their own truths, yet how can they both be right? Is it the slipperiness of memory which is at work or something more sinisterly calculating? No, this is not an examination of the back story of a certain pair of royal princes but that of the protagonists in Philip Ridley’s 2007 play Leaves of Glass, currently in its first major revival at the Park Theatre in north London from production company Lidless Theatre.


Steven and Barry come from solid Eastend stock, both working for the former’s graffiti removal company. They are both haunted by the painful memory of their father’s suicide. Even so, Steven, seems on top of his life – successful business, nice house, elegant wife, baby on the way, doting mother. Meanwhile Barry is on the edge as a puke stained alcoholic, grimly trying to marshal his latent artistic talents and causing the business some problems when he fails to remove designs which he deems fall into the sphere of art. Throughout the course of the play, however, Ridley slowly but surely reverses their positions as the wheel of fortune inexorably spins. Barry foreswears the booze and starts to get his life back together.  Meanwhile Steven’s repressions come bursting through, triggered by a car accident involving a young child. And there is plenty of collateral damage on the way. Mum Liz is, much to her dismay, rehoused and Steven’s wife  Debbie suddenly ups and leaves the marital home. This is either because of the possibly literal rats in the cellar; or is it the metaphorical ones that manifest themselves in the form of past abuse and current domestic violence? Barry is convinced, on, he claims, Debbie’s own say so, that it is the latter; his brother is equally assertive that it is merely the former. Liz becomes piggy in the middle as her sons trade vitriol and eventually blows. In a shiver inducing moment she rounds on them and cries “How can you tell such lies?” Clever positioning leaves the audience uncertain as to which of her sons she is addressing; probably/possibly both of them.

Eventually the rats (both literal and metaphorical) have to be confronted and Ridley places his denouement in the darkened cellar where the brothers face up to each other and their shared past. This, in particular, is a riveting and horrifically realised piece of writing, directing and acting with Ned Costello and Joseph Potter giving powerful and sustained performances of vitriol, pain, catharsis and a despairing resolution to proceedings. Costello (never off stage) is a revelation as the outwardly respectable but inwardly flailing Steven. It is said of him “You believe him cos he wraps all the painful stuff in feathers and flowers. Makes it all safe and cosy. You can’t feel the broken glass inside.” Actually, in Costello’s performance you really can feel it. Potter, as Barry, follows his Offie winning turn in Ridley’s The Poltergeist (another tortured artist at odds with life) with a further compelling, mesmeric and subtly shifting character study which demonstrates his complete compatibility with the writer’s oeuvre. (Let’s hope he gets to do The Pitchfork Disney real soon). Although this is primarily the tale of the two brothers there is also excellent work from Katie Buchholz as Debbie and Kacey Ainsworth as Liz. The latter was apparently an eleventh hour replacement but more than holds her own with a fully realised authentic characterisation.

The production design by Kit Hinchcliffe has a very clean and streamlined aesthetic; four black benches are manipulated into various configurations on a black reflective floor and only essential props appear. Alex Lewer’s moody lighting lends a great deal of atmosphere, particularly in the candlelit cellar showdown and sound designer Sam Glossop’s audio contributions enhance the repressed sense of menace which pervades. Lawrence Carmichael’s fight sequences are fully convincing and particularly laudable given the in the round staging where it is not easy to disguise the physical trickery. The  direction of Max Harrison mines all the possibilities of the text and makes excellent use of the intimate space. While arena staging isn’t to everyone’s taste I thought it worked well here and the restless movement this necessitated kept things appropriately frantic and vibrant.


As might be expected, Ridley’s dense text is poetically ripe with metaphor and allusion which is of equal or even greater importance than the actual narrative. The multiple references to glass in all its states pervades the play reminding us that the comparative instability of shifting sand can be readily transformed into the immutability of a substance famed for its variety of uses but also of its extreme fragility and even potential deadliness. Liz’s collection of glittering glass figurines is systematically smashed; it is a trope also used in Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie but none the less effective for that. Glass is relatively strong but also extremely brittle just like Ridley’s characters. It can both accurately reflect and subtly distort just like their memories. Above all it can be both translucent and opaque, something which Ridley’s play and this taut revival make manifest. Recommended.

Production photos by Mark Senior

Leaves Of Glass is currently at the Park Theatre – click here . It then travels to the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford (15 – 17 June) and  Manchester’s Hope Mill Theatre (10 – 16 July)

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