Theatre

‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ review – Blanche burns bright in Rebecca Frecknall’s brash, brutal staging

Please note: This review – like the production itself – discusses the themes of mental health and domestic violence. Please take care when reading and click off this article if these subjects are triggering to you.

★★★★

Drop everything like Paul Mescal does in the Almeida Theatre production of A Streetcar Named Desire to try and get tickets to see it. As an unpredictable and menacing Stanley, the Normal People star discards props with reckless abandon, but don’t think for one second that Cabaret director Rebecca Frecknall’s vision is the same. It’s intense, intriguing, intelligent and intricate, with an astonishing attention to detail.

It starts loud and messy, and it’s meant to be, with little stagnation in a pounding pace (courtesy of Tom Penn on drums overhead) until the very end of the play, where the space is needed to process the tragedy that’s unfolded. The drums are a sharp artistic metaphor for the trauma repressed by a permanently flustered and jittery Blanche DuBois (Patsy Ferran, of Treasure Island) – to not have a firm hold of one’s emotions, we learn, is to risk losing oneself.

And it’s on this fascinating precipice where we spend most of our time in this adaptation, as Blanche turns up on sister Stella’s (Anjana Vasan, of the Lyric Hammersmith’s A Doll’s House) doorstep and pushes for control of the noises in and around her. If she’s not delivering the most incredible monologues barbed with bluntness, then she’s alone, desperate to turn on the radio if only to flood the room with white noise. There’s a genuine sadness to Ferran’s Blanche as she feels alien in a world of brutal love around her, wanting to feel romance for herself again, but knowing it needs to be healthy and that she must first overcome the vulnerability that brings.

Her judgement is as clouded as the single overhead light illuminating the stage, at first flickering before being covered with a red lantern which is as much a symbol of being blinded by rage as it is by desire. The warmth and character of Lee Curran’s lighting design is a standout technicality, exquisite and purposeful in its use throughout, much like the items brought on and taken off stage by the ensemble as and when required.

It’s a kind of essentialism and minimalism which strips Tennessee Williams’ play to its emotional bones, and for the most part, it works exceptionally well against Madeleine Girling’s square set. It is sometimes hard to ascertain the domestic setting on such a plain block set, but it feels hardly necessary amid the tension and dialogue. A square in the round, meanwhile, is a physical and erudite manifestation of circling the square, too (one could argue), which is what the conflict of A Streetcar Named Desire is very much about.

Stanley is the adversary, of course – a manipulative alpha male who has abused Stella into stagnation, much to the frustration of a far more animated Blanche. Though we can see the latter begin to sow a confidence in the former which only increases the pressure, and sees Vasan flourish. The pair are, in the most basic sense, equals in their lust for control, prompting thrilling mind games between them. Mescal is chilling as his Stanley becomes increasingly volatile, unpredictable and explosive – as if all that drumming wasn’t frustrating enough for Blanche.

Her balancing act of love and preservation, and the dilemma it creates, easily elicits sympathy for an otherwise flawed, bigoted and self-centred individual, and it’s as Blanche lets her guard down that Stanley exploits the cracks, and she crumbles in an utterly devastating fashion. The pacing is relentless – remarkably impressive when I only have memories of the Young Vic’s tiresome and sluggish version with Gillian Anderson. It meant at times my concentration wandered and I was simply processing what was in front of me visually, but that certainly didn’t effect one’s engagement with the piece as a whole. In its theatrical simplicity, Frecknall’s Streetcar creates space for desire’s complexity – and it is fascinating.

A Streetcar Named Desire is now playing at the Almeida Theatre until 4 February. All remaining performances are sold out, but there is a returns queue, with online returns also possible.

It will then transfer to the Phoenix Theatre from 20 March to 29 April.

Relaxed and audio described performances will take place on 25 and 28 January respectively.


Production Images: Marc Brenner.

Disclaimer: I was invited to watch ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ for free exchange for a review of the performance as a member of the press. I did not receive payment for this article and all opinions stated above are honest and my own.

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