A Streetcar Named Desire

9th to 16th November 2019

Tennessee Williams | Crescent Theatre | Directed by James David Knapp

The Crescent Theatre's latest studio production – ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ – powerfully explores the battle between fantasy and reality which sits at the heart of this landmark American play.

Director James David Knapp notes that the play presents audiences with a melting pot of questions and an ‘exploration of life at its most painful and raw.’ He has assembled an impressive cast who successfully transport us to Elysian Fields, the run-down French Quarter district in New Orleans in which the play is set.

The action unfolds in the two-bedroom apartment of husband and wife Stella and Stanley Kowalski. Blanche DuBois, Stella’s sister, visits from Mississippi and reveals that the ancestral family home - Belle Reve – has been lost. Williams’ poetic play draws the audience into Blanche’s tragic past and as the line between fantasy and reality blurs, we are confronted with a range of challenging questions. Why do we engage in self-destructive behaviour? What is the relationship between sex and love? How do we cope with grief, rejection and cruelty?

Set design (Keith Harris, Rose Anderson and James David Knapp) is strong, nicely evoking the claustrophobic and oppressive heat of the Kowalski household and making use of the intimate space in the Crescent’s studio theatre. Light and music are key to staging ‘Streetcar’ and this production successfully employs both for dramatic effect. As the more upbeat rhythms of ‘Paper Moon’ morph into the increasingly discordant strains of the Varsouviana polka we are propelled along with the characters towards the devastating climax.

Annie Swift gives a moving central performance as fading Southern belle Blanche: her husky voice is breathy and tinged with desperation throughout. The ghost of Vivian Leigh looms large over any performance of Blanche but Swift makes it her own, managing to convey vanity and vulnerability as well as strength. There’s an uncomfortable, palpable tension between her and Stanley: both actors investing meaning in various glances, gestures and body language.

Ollie Jones’ Stanley is an intimidating presence on stage, full of sinister menace and very much the alpha male protecting his patch. Wiry, lean and dominant, he exudes arrogant pride and supreme self-confidence. A scene in which he systematically smashes plates hints at the animal energy underlying the calculated control he exercises over the household.

Beth Gilbert plays Stella with a steely strength, nicely capturing a woman torn between passionate desire (and love?) for her husband and a duty to protect and care for her sister. She busies herself constantly with domestic duties, folding sheets and cleaning frantically: the nervous energy works beautifully to suggest a woman struggling to control the powerful emotional forces swirling around her.

Blanche’s love interest, Mitch, is sensitively portrayed by Joe Palmer. His stammer – “You need somebody. And I need somebody too. Could it be – you and me, Blanche?” – exposes his puppy-like infatuation and vulnerability poignantly. And Patrick Shannon delivers a short but promising performance as a young paperboy visiting the Kowalski household who is drawn into Blanche’s fantasy world.

Some of the violent moments lose their visceral power and the scene in which Stella returns to Stanley after a beating lacks shock and dramatic impact as a result. Despite certain changes to Williams’ script suggesting a shying away from some of the more uncomfortable aspects of the play, this is a hugely successful production. A compelling interpretation which drew the audience, and my students, into the complexities of Williams’ writing. A streetcar worth riding.

‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ is playing at the Crescent Theatre until 16th November 2019.

Streetcar Crescent