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A Streetcar Named Desire - Phoenix Theatre

It’s been such a hyped-up production that it is almost disappointing that it’s not more of a radical reinterpretation of A Streetcar Named Desire as it’s been staged over the years. The elephant in the room is the top price £300 seats, discounted to £200 with an ATG membership – I’m told that if the guy who plays Stanley Kowalski, the BAFTA winning Paul Mescal, had won the Academy Award for which he had been nominated, the prices might have been even higher. Never mind that the central character is actually Blanche DuBois (Patsy Ferran), for some, it’s all about the macho man. To be fair to Mescal he’s no Connell-from-Normal-People here, and displays a convincingly terrifying bravado and self-confidence about him. In some ways, it’s highly unfortunate that characters like him are timeless – controlling and monstrous, and seldom able to express strong emotions through anything other than anger. (Maybe we ought to have more Connells in life after all?)

Mescal’s Stanley is pretty much what you’d expect from a straightforward larger than life bully of a man who is used to getting what he wants, even if it’s by brute force. Ferran’s Blanche is different, however, to how the character is typically portrayed. According to Tennessee Williams’ script, Blanche is around thirty, with her sister Stella (Anjana Vasan), Stanley’s wife, around twenty-five. In most productions time hasn’t been kind to her, which is why the part is often (though not exclusively) played by middle-aged women. Ferran, on the other hand, looks considerably younger than both the ages of her good self and her character. Indeed, with no disrespect to either actor, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Stella was the older sister (except you wouldn’t be, because the dialogue makes it crystal clear she isn’t). Part of this arises from this Stella’s relative stoicism, a realistic and practical woman who isn’t dreamily hopeful as Stella is, yet doesn’t align with Stanley’s approach of being angry at the world and almost everything in it.

Ferran’s Blanche contrasts brilliantly with Stanley, a vulnerable and slight figure – it’s so easy to believe it when Stella repeatedly expresses concern about her, with references to her delicate state. A pity, then, that the blocking is all over the place – with no actual doors on stage, it’s all but impossible to work out when someone’s inside or outside. Sometimes characters walk around to where the front door of Stanley’s house would reasonably be expected to be, and other times they seem to walk through walls and windows.

Like The Doctor before it (that is, another West End transfer from the Almeida Theatre), there’s a drummer (Tom Penn) positioned high above the stage. The drum kit’s regular contributions are, I suppose, better than recorded inter-scene music, but as it starts off so noisily, the drumming has nowhere to go, and gradually loses its effectiveness. A loud and unsubtle production, there’s a lot of shouting going on, whether it’s Stella’s friend Eunice Hubbel (Cash Holland) calling for the police, apparently without a telephone – just hollering with such volume as if the police would attend anyway to see what the noise pollution was all about – or some poker game going on into the small hours.

Despite its shortcomings, the production’s nearly three-hour running time flies by (always a good thing). The rain effects – plural – are ultimately superfluous, a point underlined when I popped out to stretch my legs during the interval only to return to find crew members mopping up all the water on stage, and the stage is very bare for a West End show – a couple of chairs, Blanche’s suitcase and – key to the narrative – a small but nonetheless seemingly endless supply of liquor. It’s no bad thing, really, if a dark and broody play like this one left me wanting to get to a pub myself afterwards. An energetic and bombastic performance.

Four stars

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