Monday, 9 April 2018

REVIEW: A Streetcar Named Desire at the Southampton Nuffield

Tennessee Williams' Streetcar named Desire is set in New Orleans post the Second World War and we are introduced to the tragic direction that Blanche Dubois's life has taken by her opening speech as she arrives at the Kowalskis' home and says she rode a streetcar named Desire, then transferred at Cemeteries, which brought her to a street in Elysian Fields.This sets the tone and location of this classic play and the shadows of the acclaimed original productions that featured Marlon Brando, Jessica Tandy, Karl Malden and Vivian Leigh, or more recent ones featuring Alec Baldwin, Jessica Lange, Rachel Weisz and Gillian Anderson hang over any new version.

Director Chelsea Walker, a 2017 RTST Sir Peter Hall Director Award, takes on this bold challenge in a production at the new Southampton Nuffield city venue by setting the play in modern costume with a cast of young performers and a simple Portacabin style home without any attempt to suggest the upstairs rooms that neighbours occupy or its location in New Orleans except via their accents. We never really sense the heat of the Deep South summer. She has stripped back the show to the bare essentials, brought the violence and sexual activity into full view and worked hard to make it relevant to the #TimesUp era. She packs the show with her fresh dramatic ideas , like the hacking of a melon into slices, the bursting of a birthday balloon, a Heart of Glass dance sequence and the fluttering of falling petals in the fantasy / breakdown sequences. However distractingly she leaves the script unchanged having changed some props so that Blanche's "tin box" is cardboard, the "paper lantern" is a silver mirror ball and when she asks Mitch to look in "her purse" for a key, she does not have one. However the overall effect is strong as Blanche's tragic life lies are exposed and her mental breakdown envelopes the whole stage . 

The design by Georgia Lowe reflects the stripped back approach and it will making touring easier than a full set but the central pillar blocks some views, the shower is too hidden away upstage right and the final sequence as the set breaks down could be more slickly executed. The lighting by Lee Curran is at its best in the fantasy / breakdown sequences and casting deep shadows but the curious LED strip around the roof top seems out of place .

Kelly Gough looks too young to play Blanche but she captures perfectly her sensual vulnerability, desperation for approval and friendship, and ultimately her tragic path to self destruction of her relationships and failing mental stability. She never earns our sympathy but we are shocked and moved by her ultimate fate. Amber James is very believable as the sister Stella torn by her love for her abusive husband and her concern for her sister. Patrick Knowles is Stanley, the former army engineer criticised for his animal, sub human habits which he displays throughout in his unpleasant self centred treatment of the other characters . In sharp contrast is Mitch played by Dexter Flanders, a quiet polite gentle former army engineer, who falls under Blanche's spell for a while .

Sam Hodges is setting out a clear vision for this new venue with exciting fresh productions and Chelsea Walker demonstrates with this show her potential as an exciting and adventurous director. She has created an updated version of this classic play which should appeal to a younger audience, especially those studying the play, without preconceptions of previous versions and hammers home her message about communities complicity in violence towards women.

Review by Nick Wayne 

Rating: ★★★
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