This multiple prize winning drama from Tennessee Williams rightly remains a favourite with audiences and theatrical companies alike. It is also hugely challenging. Its reputation guarantees a good house, but the roster of actors who have taken parts, including Jessica Tandy, Marlon Brando, Vivien Leigh ( directed by Sir Lawrence Olivier), Alec Baldwin , Jessica Lange, and more recently Gillian Anderson, sets an acting standard of the highest order.
Seventy years old this year, its visceral nature and smouldering sexual tension scandalised a contemporary theatre going public and was too much for the film censors in 1951 who insisted on numerous cuts. The compact , bijou, Sutton Arts theatre physically is an ideal cockpit for the claustrophobic drama that unfolds. I should make it clear that this review is not under the Behind the Arras banner, and is not a paid for “puff piece”, just my own call.
Bringing the production to stage had generated a drama of its own as original Director Claire Armstrong Mills dramatically withdrew from the role, leaving Debbie Loweth to bring the show to stage amidst a whirl of intrigue which probably deserves its own play. Claire had previously directed Emily Armstrong and Debbie Loweth in “Steaming”, a production which trumped the professional production which had recently toured, and in which Emily had shone. It was a shame that Claire’s vision of the show was not to be tested.
I was expectant to discover how this production would shape up. The film was seductive and intense. Benedict Andrews’ magnificent stage revival a few years ago , which I was privileged to see, had Gillian Anderson as a bird of prey, smouldering, in a contemporary setting. Loweth opts for the original period, taking no chances with audience expectation.
Upon entering, the audience is greeted by an open stage set, a dry ice induced heat haze, and players already on stage. There are no closed walls, everything is open, any secrets must out. Set designer Mark Nattrass should feel immensely proud of the space he created, even if his set building team were numerous enough to rebuild the entire theatre, let alone a stage set.
Stanley Kowalski’s role is pivotal to the success of the show, and in Robbie Newton we had a man, and a physique, up to the task. Gore Vidal memorably claimed that Kowalski was the first erotic male role written in an American drama. Newton’s Kowalski is brutish, basic, and primeval, his guttural drawl oozing menace and threat in a fine characterisation.
Phebe Jackson is outstanding as Kowalski’s wife Stella. An emotional foil to sister Blanche, and physical foil to husband Stanley, she convincingly portrays the paradox of the beaten wife who still loves her man, without sentimentality or melodrama.
Dexter Whitehead offers a thoughtful and nuanced dimension to Stanley’s poker buddy Mitch, a beacon of decency amongst the brawling, mewling poker players. Originally the play was to be called “Poker Night”, only to be pulled by the agent who thought the name too closely resembled the Western genre, even though its association of bluff and deception is perfectly apposite.
However any production of “Streetcar” hinges on the role of Blanche Dubois, taken by Emily Armstrong. Emily tears into the role with energy, commitment and swagger in an emotionally draining interpretation ( she looked shattered at the curtain call). My friend and colleague, Critic Roger Clarke, called it a “dream performance”.
I had a few quibbles. The first act came at a frantic pace. The deep south American accent is a slow, languid drawl, Emily’s quicker, staccato , North Eastern seaboard delivery meant that some great lines became rushed, or lost. Early on, Stan takes off his shirt in a display which should be one of tense, drawn out eroticism. It was rushed. When Blanche asks him to zip up her dress, and he ham-fistedly obliges it should be a case study in feminine seduction versus male force. It was rushed. When Blanche toys with a young door collector, we need to believe she could do it, it is what caused her to lose job at school. It was rushed. In short, on occasion, desire was in shorter supply than I would have liked. I was surprised that the coquettish grand entrance through the audience was not reprised by a similar exit at the end . But that is what makes this play so demanding, the unwritten acting demands are as great as those of the words themselves.
Loweth cleverly presents the characters in such a way that it is difficult for the audience to take sides. Blanche mixes attitude and front, with deception and despair. Stanley mixes thuggery and insight in equal measure. Mitch is self -effacing, but a bit of a dupe. Stella tries to help everyone but herself. All the main characters deceive, yet all offer truth at various times.
Sutton Arts succeed in presenting a credible interpretation of this most demanding of shows, bringing alive writing which still shines after all these years. “ A Street Car Named Desire” runs til Saturday 18th march. Hop on board.