A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE
Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Sunday 10th November, 2019
When she has nowhere else to go, fading Southern belle Blanche Du Bois rocks up at her sister’s seedy place in the ironically named Elysian Fields – her sojourn turns out to be more like a visit to Hades. From the get-go, playwright Tennessee Williams indicates that all is not how it seems, making us privy to the lies Blanche tells others about how little she drinks. It then becomes a matter of time for her sordid secrets to come to light, and in true Williams tradition, for the spectre of homosexuality to rear its degenerate head (although it is only ever implied).
As Blanche, Annie Swift captures the airs and graces of the role, keeping the mannerisms and declarations on the right side of camp, lest the character become a laughingstock. As the fantasies with which Blanche shields herself are stripped away, she becomes increasingly unable to cope with grim reality, resulting in mental decline. Doing the bulk of the stripping is brutish brother-in-law Stanley (Ollie Jones) a domineering primate, bully and domestic abuser. Jones is fine in the role; his Stanley has a sharpness rather than a brooding quality. Beth Gilbert is excellent as the put-upon but feisty Stella, the bridge between her sister and her husband, between Blanche’s former life and this new, unwelcome and unsettling one.
There is strong support from Nicole Poole as Eunice and James Browning as Steve, a couple of neighbours. Even the most minor roles make an impression: for example, Destiny Sond as a neighbour, and Patrick Shannon as a young man making charity collections. Joe Palmer is altogether splendid as Harold Mitchell, the antithesis of Stanley, all politeness and good manners – until he can’t have what he wants.
The production is enhanced considerably by sultry lighting (designed by Patrick McCool and Chris Briggs) casting horizontal shadows across the scene, while vibrant sunsets paint the window. Andrew Cowie and Ray Duddin’s sound design, so effective at creating atmosphere of the street (we can hear the eponymous transport!), really comes into its own during moments when Blanche is becoming unhinged and we hear what’s going on in her increasingly deluded state.
James David Knapp’s direction creates some lovely moments of tension around the table, and the outbursts of violence are neatly handled. Everything comes together for a blistering final act, and we are left to consider who has it worse: Blanche being taken away or Stella left behind with a man who doesn’t stop short of sexual violence. Blanche’s troubles stem from the realisation that her husband was ‘a degenerate’ – everything she has done since his suicide has been leading her to this slippery slope, captivatingly portrayed here by Annie Swift and a powerful ensemble.