Updated: Sep 20
Review by Daz Gale
One of the most exciting revivals of 2022 has spilled over into 2023 thanks to a delayed press night as the Almeida Theatre play host to a new stage adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ iconic classic A Streetcar Named Desire. Directed by Rebecca Frecknall who has just blown West End audiences away with Cabaret at the Kit Kat Club, starring an actor who has become one of the most talked about following his turn in Normal People and following the Almeida’s acclaimed production of Tammy Faye, expectations were certainly high for this new adaptation. The question is if it was remotely possible to match them.
A Streetcar Named Desire was first performed in 1947 and has seen countless adaptations across TV, film and stage in the decades since. It tells the story of Blanche DuBois who unexpectedly invites herself in to the home of her sister Stella and husband Stanley. As tensions flair, violence erupts and the real reason for Blanche’s arrival comes to light, this is a play that doesn’t shy away from the heavier themes in what can often be an uncomfortable watch, but one that packs a real punch with its execution.
It seems obvious to say that Tennessee Williams’ writing in Streetcar is incredible – the fact his writing is so often revived and performed is a testament to his genius as a writer. It’s the way the themes explored in his plays continue to prove relevant more than 75 years later that showcases the true timelessness and vitality of his works, with Streetcar a prime example of this. With themes of domestic violence, misogyny and attitudes towards mental health all key to the story, there is a continued significance to the content of the play that consistently evokes intense reactions while watching.
The question is how do you take such an iconic story that has been performed in countless adaptations and bring something new to it? That isn’t a problem for Rebecca Frecknall who ripped up the rulebook with her recent revival of Cabaret and is hoping lightning will strike twice for her here. The impressive direction creates an intimacy and Intensity with the choice to have cast members not in the scenes stay on the side-lines glaring at the action themselves, and often pacing around, circling the stage which creates an ominous mood of what danger is looming ahead.
Madeleine Girling’s inspired set design transforms the Almeida Theatre so the audience surround the stage. What appears to be a fairly sparse set with minimal props reveals itself to hide an impressive trick which is stunning to witness. Lee Currans lighting design stays true to Blanche’s preferences, keeping the action predominantly dimly lit throughout, while the added element of music including the presence of a drummer brings a truly atmospheric setting, punctuating the action and piercing through the audience with one crash of a drum.
The casting for this production of Streetcar made headlines for multiple reasons. Most recently the sudden departure of a leading actress saw Patsy Ferran brought in to play the truly iconic role of Blanche DuBois. You wouldn’t know she hadn’t been involved in the production from day one as she effortlessly channelled the complexities of the character showcasing her enormous talents as an actress and an undeniably captivating stage presence.
Paul Mescal returns to the stage following his rapid rise to fame in Normal People, effortlessly proving why he has become one of the most talked about actors in the country and why that is set to continue for the next couple of decades (while he films Merrily We Roll Along). As Stanley Kowalski, Mescal gives an intensity that is equally amazing and terrifying to witness. With the ability to switch from the quieter moments in his character to the most disturbing in an instant, he is an absolute wonder to observe on stage, delivering a note-perfect interpretation of a character who can’t be the easiest to get into the head of.
While her character of Stella is quieter compared to her husband and sister, Anjana Vasan gives a beautifully understated performance as the glue that ties the other two main characters together. With a performance full of vulnerability and versatility, Anjana is consistently a delight to watch.
Other highlights among the remarkable cast are Ralph Davis as neighbour Eunice whose comparatively limited stage time makes a huge impact, and Dwane Walcott who gives a stunning portrayal of the cool, calm and collected Mitch.
Though it has been adapted time and time again over the past few decades, there is still something refreshingly different about this latest adaptation of A Streetcar Named Desire. Frecknall’s direction feels urgent, fresh and raw. Working flawlessly with all of the cohesive production elements, it leads to a consistently captivating watch. The quality production is matched by a truly impressive cast, most notably a sensational turn from Mescal providing an undoubted standout. An uncomfortable watch that doesn’t shy away from important issues, overall there is no denying that this production of A Streetcar Named Desire really is stellar.
A Streetcar Named Desire plays at the Almeida Theatre until 4th February. Tickets from almeida.co.uk
Photos by Marc Brenner