3 May 2023
A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE (Phoenix Theatre) Review

For all their conflict and topics that are relatively easy to understand and engage with, Tennessee Williams’ plays can be difficult to stage without ending up with a 3h slog of daily minutia in the lives of some people we’re struggling to care about.  Recent staging of “The Glass Menagerie” demonstrated this quite well, as did “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” at the Apollo a few years back.

Rebecca Frecknall and Patsy Ferran have teamed up before on “Summer and Smoke” at the Almeida, which too had a West End transfer (which was where I saw it).  I was underwhelmed to put it mildly and thought Ferran was a bad choice to play Alma.  Having seen the 2014 Benedict Andrews’ Young Vic production of “Streetcar” with Gillian Anderson, Ben Foster, and Vanessa Kirby, I had no intention of seeing this one.  Alas, a friend was positively dying to see it and, having picked up 2 tickets despite the entire West End run being sold out, asked me to join in on this adventure.  I did my best to go with an open mind and focus on glowing reviews for the Almeida run.

Surely everyone knows the plot outline in broad strokes, but, just in case, an older sister, Blanche, comes to stay with her younger sister Stella and Stella’s husband Stanley.

Long story short, I should’ve stayed home.  I know people have been tripping over themselves rushing to compliment both Paul Mescal and Patsy Ferran.  Walking out of the theatre after the show, I overheard a woman say to her companion, “Marlon Brando has nothing on Paul”.  Have we been watching the same show??  Let’s break it down.

Madeleine Girling’s set is minimalistic and barely lit.  Sitting mid-balcony, it was impossible to discern any expressions on the actors’ faces without binoculars (which I did have!), even though it’s not usually a problem at the Phoenix for well-lit productions.  The stage is spacious and empty, so there’s really no sense of the walls, life, or mood closing in on the characters.  The sound in the balcony was also pretty bad, so not great all around.

Rebecca Frecknall’s direction for Patsy Ferran’s Blanche seems to be identical to that of Alma in “Summer and Smoke”.  It works a little better here, but not much.  Ferran potters around the stage like some weird coquettish zombie.  She mouthes the right words, but there is no range in the level of emotions she projects, and, thus, no progression to her character.  We can’t really see her deteriorate…  Put out and nervy, Ferran is exactly the same beginning to end, which is very disappointing if you consider Anderson in this role, let alone the iconic Vivien Leigh.

Paul Mescal’s Stanley is an oaf.  In the play, Stanley is not a simple character and, just as with Blanche, there is a progression and escalating menace to him.  This is sorely missing here.  From the minute Mescal greets Blanche, he is the same kind of brutish to her all the way to the end.  He rages and boils, but it’s not the slow burn it is in the play.  I found Mescal shouty and bland, so clearly I’m not seeing something that everyone else seems to.

Lastly, Anjana Vasan as Stella is completely incidental.  Vasan plays her character as a simple plot device to bring Blanche and Stanley together in a clash.  She is simply forgettable (as is Dwane Walcott as Mitch, for what it’s worth).

I know a lot of people loved this production, but it seems to be missing all the best nuances of Williams’ text and just plows through the lines with actors people want to see live.

Cheapskate enjoyment value: -£5.

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