Ticketmaster Summer in Stages

A Streetcar Named Desire

Tennessee Williams
Octagon Theatre, Bolton
(2010)

Artistic director David Thacker adds to his repertoire of classic American drama of the twentieth century at the Octagon as he opens the autumn and winter season with Tennessee Williams's A Streetcar Named Desire.

Schoolteacher Blanche DuBois arrives from Tennessee at her sister Stella's house in New Orleans, but is shocked to find her living in a two-room apartment in a crowded part of town and married to a rough, poker-playing and occasionally violent man of Polish descent, Stanley Kowalski. However it turns out that Blanche has no reason to put on airs as she has 'lost' their family home and has no money, and stories start to follow her about why she left town to come to her sister's and why she is not teaching up to the end of the spring term.

The story has many complex layers of plot and character that are subtly and gradually played out and become clear. The play contains not one but two of the greatest characters of modern American drama in Blanche DuBois and Stanley Kowalski and, despite the 11-strong cast in this production, including some doubling of smaller roles, the story hinges on the battle between the two of them, largely a battle for Stella and partly based on class, something that is often said not to be a divisive issue in USA.

Thacker's production is in-the-round, focusing attention on the whitewashed wood, iron and furniture of the Kowalskis' ground-floor apartment and the steps up to the Hubbels in the apartment above in a design by Ciaran Bagnall that chimes in well with the stylised naturalism of Tennessee Williams. However it doesn't quite achieve the sweaty intensity that it really should have to really draw the audience into the world of these wonderfully-drawn characters. Sometimes the dialogue appears a little hesitant, which slows up the action, and there are moments of indulgent emoting that slow everything up even more; it's true that if a character cries then the audience feels it doesn't have to and they become distant observers rather than truly empathising with them.

The problems with pace extend the running time a bit too much. The timings on the theatre's web site seem very specific for each act, but on press night the whole thing came in at nearer to three and a half hours than the three hours quoted.

There are some other niggling issues that may be minor details but can jolt you out of the world of the play. The lack of walls or clear indications of where walls should be sometimes makes it unclear what each character can see or hear of what is happening in the next room. When Blanche tells Stanley he is blocking her way, she has a clear alternative way to the door which would be the shortest and most obvious route even if Stanley hadn't been there. The radio that needed a new valve didn't look to me like a valve radio, and I think that Blanche's trunk was there from the start even though the Kowalskis didn't know she was coming.

Despite all of this, there is a great deal to this production that is very good indeed, not least some excellent performances. Amy Nuttall gives the most natural performance, completely convincingly living in the tiny space as though she is used to sleeping, cleaning up and cooking in it every day of her life. Her relationship with Clare Foster as Blanche is also convincing as a sister relationship from the bickering to the more tender and caring moments. Foster puts across Blanche's snobbery well, and her constant, nervy chatter and slightly hysterical half-smile indicate something hidden behind her façade, which gradually breaks away as she gradually breaks down.

Kieran Hill returns to the Octagon as Stanley Kowalski in a portrayal that is perhaps more sympathetic and less constantly angry than may be expected from this character but it does work and helps with the confusing and shifting morality of the characters. Annie Tyson creates a good matriarchal figure in Eunice Hubbel, able to step in and help the younger couple from time to time.

This production is too long, but, as a whole, it is very good if not great. Even playing it in-the-round can't achieve the intensity of, say, Theatre by the Lake's wonderful The Glass Managerie, which is still running in Keswick, but if you are prepared for a long haul and a late night it is still a production worth seeing.

To 9 October 2010

Reviewer: David Chadderton