“You take it for granted that I am in something that I want to get out of”
Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire seems an unlikely choice to put on in a chilly March in Liverpool – the Donmar’s 2009 production took place at the height of summer – but Gemma Bodinetz’s production succeeds utterly in raising the temperature to create a rather stunning account of this classic play which remains taut and gripping throughout. When Blanche DuBois is forced to throw herself on the mercy of her sister Stella in her tiny New Orleans apartment, Blanche is ill-prepared for the clash of class, culture and character that comes from such proximity to Stella’s husband Stanley as he sets about dismantling her delusions of grandeur with chilling cruelty.
The stifling heat of the French Quarter, and the ever-constricting atmosphere are perfectly simulated here in Gideon Davey’s design (plus special credit to Paul Keogan’s lighting) and Bodinetz expertly increases the pressure in ever-increasing increments to an almost unbearable level. There is dark stuff contained in here, I’d forgotten just how dark myself, yet we’re constantly reminded of Williams’ point that the world is full of pain and suffering and most people just get on with it. Yet Blanche has retreated from reality, glass in hand, Stanley’s completely differing take on life set him on a collision course with her and we are spared none of the violence as class warfare degenerates into domestic abuse on a horrific level.
There’s something about the role of Blanche that holds the potential for actresses to really elevate their performances into the stratosphere. Rachel Weisz did it at the Donmar and so too does Amanda Drew here, in a simply incandescent turn as the faded Southern belle. It’s particularly pleasing as her talents were not well served by a small role in Butley but here she is given the room to spread out luxuriously and fill the entire auditorium with a glamorous charisma. She demands the attention with every gesture, every hint of emotion and is hauntingly, devastatingly moving as her mental decline sets in. Truly outstanding work.
It is too their credit (and Drew’s too) that the supporting cast around her aren’t blown away by the star turn. But rather, Leanne Best’s Stella is a sweetly portrayed delight with an inner steel as she is ultimately forced to choose between sister and husband, Matthew Flynn brings an almost goofy charm to would-be perfect gentleman caller Mitch, and there’s Mandi Symonds, Stephen Fletcher and Annabelle Apsion all impressed in smaller roles. Sam Troughton’s Stanley suffered a little bit by comparison for me: he’s not Elliot Cowan (which is hardly his fault) but he didn’t really have the natural animalistic physicality that I wanted, resorting to just shouting a bit too often, though he played the conniving amorality with great skill and almost winning us round with his charm.
People often cry transfer, transfer when a regional success like this appears but I think that it is important that this doesn’t happen too often, in order to make people realise that they can, and should, travel to see great theatre. Londoners in particular are often guilty of a lack of adventurousness and places like Chichester seem to have a direct line to the West End now so it is easy to think that the best plays will come to them. But ultimately they’re the ones that are missing out so if you don’t already, have a look at the seasons at places like the Playhouse here, the Royal Exchange in Manchester, the Sheffield theatres…there’s a whole world outside the M25 you know!