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City of Glass, HOME, Manchester and Lyric Hammersmith, London, Review

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by David Keyworth (subscribe)
I’m a freelance journalist and published poet, based in Manchester. https://uk.linkedin.com/pub/david-keyworth/49/b3a/b83
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Through a glass darkly

"It was a wrong number that started it, the telephone ringing three times in the dead of night, and the voice on the other end asking for someone he was not." This is the line which opens Paul Auster's story – City of Glass, first published in 1985, (Sun & Moon Press, Los Angeles). It was inspired by the author once receiving two unexplained phone calls from someone asking for the Pinkerton Detective Agency.

In 2017, an unsolicited phone call usually involves someone asking if we want to make a claim for an accident or for a mis-sold financial product. By the end of this brand new stage adaption, the protagonist Daniel Quinn (played by Mark Edel-Hunt and Chris New) might feel he has a valid claim for compensation, if not for personal injury, at least for severe disruption to his daily life.

Daniel Quinn (pen name William Wilson) is a former poet and essay writer who now writes crime novels. He lives alone in a New York apartment, nursing grief for the loss of his wife and young son. It would spoil the night to reveal more, but explaining the unfolding events would also probably require a lengthy PowerPoint presentation.

City of Glass, HOME, Manchester and Lyric Hammersmith
Mark Edel-Hunt as Daniel Quinn. Photo by Jonathan Keenan.


The novel and play are set in the edgy, fume-filled, cacophonous, and sweaty New York of the 1980s, where the urban frenzy is only an elevator and a pane of glass away. It is a city of bright lights and dark rooms. This isn't just a metaphor, because once our eyes have adjusted to the subdued setting, we are frequently dazzled by an arrangement of lightbulbs, which frame the stage, like a giant dressing-room mirror.

This version of City of Glass is directed, designed and produced by company of artists called 59 Productions, who were behind the video design of the Opening Ceremony of the 2012 London Olympic Games. Jenny Melville (Set Design), Lysander Ashton (Video Design) and Matt Daw (Lighting Design), deserve a large share of the credit for making this stage adaptation of Paul Auster's story such a visual feast.

It is noteworthy, in terms of the production's visual language, that it is an adaptation not just of the original book, but also the graphic novel-version by Paul Karasik and David Mazzucchelli.

The plot is multi-layered and we're never quite sure who the protagonist is and who the narrator might be. Therefore, it is fitting that the actors switch between different roles throughout the play. Jack Tarlton is particularly vivid as one of the central characters - Peter Stillman. He is the kind of comical and unsettling outsider who might appear in a David Lynch film. Stillman is someone for whom dark rooms have played a very sinister part in his backstory.

City of Glass, HOME, Manchester and Lyric Hammersmith
Jack Tarlton as Stillman. Photo by Jonathan Keenan.


The multi-layered, shifting nature of the plot is true to the original. However, unlike a book, it is not possible to ask the actors to turn back to a previous section and there was also no theatre programme for the performance. This meant that, at times, the middle section of the play was so befuddling that it was hard not just to tune out and enjoy the acting and the staging.

That said, one thing you wouldn't get with the book alone is the brilliant soundtrack, from composer Nick Powell and sound designer Gareth Fry. They evoke the both the internal mood music of the characters and the New York soundscape in music which ranges from jarring to lyrical.

Although the plot itself is often hard to grasp, the emotional core of the story resonates strongly. It reminds us that city life is exhilarating when it enables us to adopt different personas but the anonymity can also feel like falling through an empty lift shaft with no one there to catch us.

This new stage version of City of Glass, directed by Leo Warner, uses all the theatrical tools in it talented hands to make it an evening to remember. I personally wish I had read the book before seeing the play but there is no doubting the relish with which 59 Productions' translate a complex piece of literature to the stage. It's a production, which leaves you with a maze of ideas to explore. It will also make you think twice about answering a phone call in the night.

Paul Auster's City of Glass by 59 Productions. Photo by Jonathan Keenan
Paul Auster's City of Glass by 59 Productions. Photo by Jonathan Keenan


The play runs for around one hour 35 mins, with no interval. It features haze, smoking, swearing, nudity, strobe lighting, and gunshots. It will transfer to the Lyric Hammersmith, London 20 April – 13 May, before an international tour.

In addition to the stage production, My Name is Peter Stillman is a brand new Virtual Reality experience created by 59 Productions and funded by The Space. It runs for about five minutes and is well worth putting on the Oculus Rift VR headset to experience.

City of Glass

Lyric Hammersmith 20 April - 20 May 2017


Paul Auster, 2010 Brooklyn Book Festival. By David Shankbone (Shankbone) CC BY 3.0 (creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0), viaWikimedia Commons
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Why? Brilliant staging of a New York story
Phone: 0161 200 1500
Where: HOME arts centre, Manchester, Lyric Hammersmith, London.
Cost: From £10
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