Theatre Review: A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE – Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester

A Streetcar Named Desire - Royal Exchange

Maxine Peake as Blanche Dubois with Ben Batt as Stanley Kowalski. Photo Credit: Manuel Harlan

Following their critically acclaimed productions of HAMLET and THE STRIKER, Royal Exchange’s Artistic Director Sarah Frankcom and Associate Artist Maxine Peake reunite for their take on Tennessee Williams’ Pulitzer-Prize winning masterpiece A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE.

Set in New Orleans, A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE tells the story of Blanche DuBois, a woman living on stories of a glamorous past whose reality is crumbling around her. Turning to her younger sister Stella for solace, Blanche’s downward spiral brings her face to face with Stella’s brutal and unforgiving husband Stanley Kowalski. But as the summer heat floats up and the liquor is poured, Blanche invades her sister’s marriage, igniting a dark and violent conflict with the brooding and bullish Stanley.

Raw, provocative and deeply unsettling, Frankcom’s dark and daring adaption of Williams’ 1947 masterpiece is simply electrifying. From the opening scene in which Blanche arrives at Stella’s home to the harrowing and devastating conclusion, every inch of this production suggests Blanche is trapped in a living nightmare. Fly Davis’ harsh set design is cramped and claustrophobic while Jack Knowles’ inventive lighting design explodes into a flash of vibrating colour as Blanche begins her spiralling descent into derangement. Even ghosts from Blanche’s past literally come to haunt her, dressed in death-haunted red roses and shadowing almost her every move.

A Streetcar Named Desire - Royal Exchange Theatre

Sharon Duncan-Brewster as Stella and Maxine Peake as Blanche. Photograph: Manuel Harlan

But the real strength of this production lies in the superb cast performance. Maxine Peake is phenomenal as Blanche DuBois, capturing Blanche’s limitless capacity for self-delusion as she desperately flirts and teases every man around her. Peake’s complex and multi-layered performance is both powerful and persuasive and her eventual descent into panic and hysteria, which is triggered by Stanley raping her, is tragic and harrowing.

Ben Batt brings a thrilling edge of violence to the stage as Stanley, stomping around the stage like the animal Blanche accuses him of being, grunting and moaning like a huge ape. Sharon Duncan-Brewster as Stella and Youssef Kerkour as the stumbling, tongue-tied Mitch also impress, both actors delivering a refreshing and engaging performance.

With a running time of three hours and 30 minutes (including a 20 minute interval), this is a production that builds slowly, yet despite this, some of the emotional notes don’t always land. The rape scene which sees Peake dressed in a prom dress and wig, is more surreal than tragic and on occasion, the irony turns into comedy, with the tone oscillates too quickly from light to heavy.

That said, you can’t fault the cast performances, with Peake in particular delivering a stellar performance as a desperate woman trapped between fantasy and reality.

A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE is often regarded as among the finest plays of the 20th century and if Sarah Frankcom’s production is to go by, we certainly agree.

4 out of 5 stars

A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE runs at the Royal Exchange Theatre until 15 October 2016