REVIEW: A Streetcar Named Desire, Liverpool Playhouse

IT MAY be cold on the streets of Liverpool at night, but, in the Playhouse Theatre, the oppressive heat of a New Orleans summer is rendered so realistically that you can almost feel sweat prickling your brow.

Director Gemma Bodinetz’s production of A Streetcar Named Desire is one that arouses all the senses – the brooding notes of a Blues refrain drifts across the beautifully-lit stage, where a raven-haired beauty struts in a blood red gown and the smell of cigarette smoke wafts into the stalls.

This is a world where survival comes in whatever form you can get it, whether in the shadow of a brutish protector or in a fantasy of kindness found in strangers.

Into this place arrives Blanche DuBois, visiting her sister during leave from her job as an English teacher that she has supposedly taken after a nervous breakdown.

She brings news of the loss of their white-columned family pile in Mississippi and gradually reveals the crumbling state of her own situation and sanity.

The well-known 1951 film version of Tennessee Williams’s play is driven by the tense relationship between the imaginative former schoolmistress and her aggressive brother-in-law Stanley Kowalski, but the Playhouse production’s power lies in the two sisters.

Amanda Drew’s portrayal of Blanche is seductive, managing the transition between confident, flirtatious Southern belle and frightened, vulnerable fantasist in a way that utterly convinces.

Williams’s fractured passages trip off her tongue in a throaty drawl, her character’s frailty sometimes showing through the thin veneer of resilience.

As her sister Stella, Liverpool actor Leanne Best is just as magnetic. Tensed like a cornered animal until a show of affection from her husband or Blanche relaxes her, she makes her unlikely attraction to Stanley seem natural.

The atmosphere is tense from the outset and builds uncomfortably, the passage of time marked by Stella’s swelling baby bump and her husband’s growing irritation.

Even Gideon Davey’s set is uneasy – the walls of the Kowalskis’ tiny apartment are worryingly slanted and the ceiling fan’s monotonous rotation emphasises the play’s languid mood.

As Stanley, Sam Troughton lacks the animal magnetism that Marlon Brandon brought to the role, but he nonetheless successfully brings out the contradiction between the character’s violence and the tenderness of which he proves capable.

And when his anger finally explodes and he crushes Blanche’s spirit in the most aggressive way he can, it’s a truly breath-stopping moment.

Liverpool Post, 23/2/12