A Streetcar Named Desire, The Almeida, stage review: ‘little mistakes puncture a layered tapestry’

A Streetcar Named Desire. Front: Paul Mescal and Anjana Vasan.

A Streetcar Named Desire. Front: Paul Mescal and Anjana Vasan. Photograph: Marc Brenner

With discussions and support for mental health reaching a historic high, a play about a precipitous spiral into instability might seem an easy win. But Director Rebecca Frecknall has a difficult task on her hands, trading in the worn-out sequins of Cabaret (her most recent coup) for something much darker and arguably more complex.

One of Tennessee Williams’s most famous and repeated works A Streetcar Named Desire has all the hallmarks of his oeuvre: faded grandeur, obsession, sexual frustration, and uncommunication. That along with Summer and Smoke and The Glass Menagerie also feature female characters influenced by his sister Rose’s schizophrenia and eventual lobotomy in the 1940s.

We meet the infamous Blanche DuBois as she tries to shelter from a particularly hard life with her sister Stella in New Orleans after the loss of their ancestral home. The accumulation of Stella’s ferocious husband Stanley, disappointments in love and her past sneaking up on her provide the perfect storm for the beleaguered Blanche (and car crash theatre for the audience).

Although her deterioration is the most explosive of the three plays (and thereof a gift for whatever actor is tasked with it) it throws up some frankly barbaric notions of how we as a society deal with the mentally unwell. This is both the play’s crowning glory and its deepest difficulty.

Frecknall’s attempt to attenuate the piece for our thoroughly modern eyes is apparently to strip and strip it hard.

The stage is a raised square, with audience members all around (a square in the round if you will). A trough runs around the floating shape, and dark wooden boards pave it. In the balcony/box above the stage, Tom Penn sits thumping drums providing the only accompaniment, perfectly capturing the clashing dissonance of Blanche’s mental state.

All props are brought on, mainly simple clinical metal chairs, and characters are always lurking in the shadows watching the action. Together they prowl on stage for any needed costume changes or for moments of experimental dance that channels Williams’s love of memory over realism.

There are shouts, snatches of song, and sudden clashes of cymbals keeping everyone (on- and off-stage) on edge.

Patsy Ferran plays Blanche, standing in for an injured Lydia Wilson for the whole of the run. Hers is a softer, more fragile, birdlike version.

Ferran acts her face off, despite the odd casting choice for an age-obsessed Blanche, as she looks so youthful. Normal People’s star Paul Mescal bites as the belligerent Stanley Kowalski, an at-turns faithful and fearfully abusive character.

Anjana Vasan tries her best to bring life to the conflicting and uncomfortable role (for a modern audience) of Blanche’s sister, Stella, and does very well breathing warmth into her.

These three (for most of the play), only two rooms, a floating drum kit and very little else means that some ineffective directorial choices loom large.

Little things that one imagines are meant to create the dream-like quality so loved by the writer come across as missteps. The mention of a stain on a white colour, when the character is wearing a red shirt.

Someone sitting down in the script when they are standing, little mistakes that puncture the layered tapestry woven by the impressive performances.

It seems to be in the land of dreams where this laid-bare production has problems waking up.

Vague dance sections fail to embody the trauma of Blanche’s early days, slow motion is clumsily deployed, and accents slip repeatedly.

Despite rain descending on the plateau of wood at the perfect moment, and sprightly performances, too much is taken from the story’s visual narrative and not enough is added to make up the difference.