'A Streetcar Named Desire' Review: ★★★★

Performance Review

A haunting interpretation of A Streetcar Named Desire, with powerful characterisation aided by a sparse but evocative staging.

Amber Ash

Streetcar Named Desire' (dir. Rebecca Frecknall) Review: 4 stars

Patsy Ferran and Anjana Vasan’s devastating performance as estranged sisters is the centrepiece of Rebecca Frecknall’s raw take on Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire. Currently at the Phoenix Theatre for a limited run, this production’s roots at the Almeida Theatre are clear in Madeleine Girling’s quasi-industrial, stripped-back staging. Far from Tennessee Williams’ iconic two-story set rife with expressionist symbolism, this production offers a minimalist raised square platform for the play’s action. Our New Orleans setting is signalled only by heavy showers of ‘Louisiana rain’, which punctuate moments of heightened tension, and our actors’ varyingly successful southern accents. Against this backdrop, the boundaries between illusion and reality are blurred on more levels than one, and the world of the play threatens to spill out into the audience.

A frequent lament in the transferral of an Almeida production to the West End is the loss of the space’s intimacy. 325 seats and two tiers – every seat is (supposedly) right in the action. Frecknall’s solution is simple: bring the Almeida to the Phoenix. Encircling the raised square platform on which most of the action unfolds, the exposed brick and pillars of the Almeida form part of the set and hem the actors in within the more expansive stage of the Phoenix.

A blank canvas of a stage, the space shapeshifts, as only the impression of a set is necessary to contextualise the action and the audience is invited to participate in Blanche’s world-building fantasy. As she quips on arrival that only Edgar Allan Poe could do the place justice, we chuckle and take her word for it. When she later cowers from Stanley in a roughly constructed fort of wooden chairs, we see her fantasies exposed as she clings childlike to illusion for protection, but only the bare bones remain as she pulls the crude structures tighter to her body.

With the bulk of the action unfolding within the confines of the raised platform, supporting characters watch on from the surrounding area and enter freely, with no real observance of imagined entrances and exits. Although the squared-off platform affords a degree of containment to the action, the freedom of movement throughout the production and crowding of characters on its peripheries create an inescapable sense of permeability, as if the action and emotions framed by the platform might spill out. The result is an elegant confluence of theatrical magic and Blanche’s fantasies: determined to live in and present the world as it ‘should be’, and adamant that the lies that constitute her ‘magic’ are never deliberately cruel, she is ultimately unable to contain her illusions and the impact they have on those around her.

With staging pared back, Williams’ other vibrant theatrical forms are elevated. The ‘hot trumpet and drums’ that characterise the “Blue Piano” of New Orleans crescendo in scene breaks and punctuate tense dialogue. Frecknall’s background in dance comes through in the contemporary movements that accentuate and tragically romanticise Blanche’s haunting recollection of the Varsouviana polka in elegant slow motion. Elsewhere moments of both consensual and non-consensual intimacy are characterised in similar terms, and the tragedy that runs beneath these movements reminds us of the dangers and limitations of seductive illusion.

Patsy Ferran is captivating as a witty but damaged Blanche, navigating the trajectory of the character’s deterioration with delicacy. Even as her unstable temperament is foregrounded at the very start, Ferran offers Blanche back some control with a self-assurance and sarcasm that make her later bird-like fragility all the more gut-wrenching. This performance is brilliantly matched by Anjana Vasan’s Stella: similarly sarcastic and self-assured, but, unlike her sister, with her feet firmly in reality. Unlike many of her prior interpretations, Vasan’s Stella is never naïve or over-sensitive. Caught between the love she feels for her sister and husband, her loyalties to both are muddied as she gives unexpected irony to certain interactions with Blanche and her passion for Stanley does not mean she is blind to his defects. While both flesh out their characters in ways that are surprising and moving, it is the sororal tension that arises when the two play against each other that is the standout of this production.

Paul Mescal is a compelling choice for the character of Stanley. From his critically acclaimed performances in Aftersun and Normal People, he brings a younger audience to the theatre in throngs and presents the potential for a challenging clash between heartthrob and abuser. Predictably enthralling in his more intimate moments with Stella, the intensity of the relationship to which she clings is seductive and offers Stanley a capacity for softness that cuts through his otherwise often crude association with the masculine sports of gambling, sex, and violence. However, Mescal is let down by the other extreme of his performance; as he erupts into fits of rage, all feeling is lost, and often his words along with it. Moreover, the outbursts seem to come from nowhere. If we are being generous, we might suppose that such sudden shifts in delivery give his character a dangerous volatility. In practice, however, the lack of build-up, paired with a loss of tonal variation in his delivery, results in a rather cartoonish and unconvincing representation that lowers the stakes when they ought to be raised.

A haunting interpretation of A Streetcar Named Desire, Frecknall’s foregrounding of the text through sparse but evocative staging offers a neat platform to construct and dismantle Williams’ characters and the worlds they inhabit. With steady pacing, the intensity of more intimate interactions builds carefully to agonising emotional peaks, and Ferran and Vasan’s uniquely humorous representations of Blanche and Stella give new strength and depth to the characters. It is only in moments where the intensity of delivery is briefly lost in performance that the impact of this production is frustratingly limited, and the piece fails to fully deliver on its affective potential.


© Copyright 2024 Cambridge Creatives

Site design by

Emily Shen