Theatre review - A Streetcar Named Desire, Theatre by the Lake
PUBLISHED: 15:51 05 April 2018 | UPDATED: 15:51 05 April 2018
Tennessee William's classic comes to the Lake District
The English Touring Theatre (ETT) have come to the Lake District’s Theatre by the Lake (TBTL) to present a new version of Tennessee William’s classic ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’. Just as the themes of the play are difficult (Williams didn’t believe in heroes or villains) so is the production. The ETT have staged something dark yet oddly beautiful.
TBTL does not have a huge main stage compared to some of the London theatres but even so, Streetcar is a difficult one to stage being better suited to a larger house rather than the more intimate studio setting yet needing to be claustrophobic and really centring around three (perhaps four) main characters. How do you fill the stage? Georgia Lowe’s set design solves this brilliantly with a ‘stage within a stage’ setting. Not only does it allow us to feel suffocated along with Blanche inside this tiny two-room apartment, but the outer rim of the block allows us think, quite literally, ‘out of the box’. In the final scenes this proves to immensely important.
The success of a production of Streetcar lies on the strength of portrayal of Blanche Dubois and Stanley Kowalski. Kelly Gough is superb as the naïve but unbalanced Blanche, her high-society southern state world destroyed leaving her bewildered by the slum reality she finds herself in. Gough is absolutely captivating. Patrick Knowles is nearly as good playing the ‘common’ and violent Kowalski, starting a little weak but by act two finding a menace inside him which was believably threatening. The pair dominate the second half and, in the very final scene, my skin crawled in a way I never thought Kowalski could make me feel just as Blanche left me devastated.
The play itself, is flawed. Tennessee Williams comes dangerously close to suggesting that Blanche ‘asks for it’ and excusing Kowalski by letting him come out the victor. If you’re not aware that, in many ways, Blanche is Williams and he is projecting much of himself into the character (guilt over the death of his sister and his own secret homosexuality) you can easily misunderstand what he is trying to say. The themes, as a result, do not always make themselves easily apparent. Likewise, the production has its issues. The voices of the actors, rather unusually for TBTL, did not project well for the first half an hour or so. I was not enamoured with the use of 80s music as if to somehow modernise the play (yet not). It works with Shakespeare but not with plays set so close to our own era. Why make the play leap forward in time yet still be thirty years behind us? I was also disappointed by the inevitable crime committed upon Blanche. This was the climactic moment where we needed to feel absolute terror and disgust. The lack of real violence made as if the characters had just shaken hands; it was the weakest part of the play.
Nevertheless, I did not have time to dwell on this final momentary dip. Literally at that same moment the whole production stepped up a gear and took the storyline into a different stratosphere. I will not spoil the ending but will simply say that cast, sound and stage design itself all worked together to give arguably the best portrayal of the unravelling of Blanche’s mind I have ever seen. It was magnificent, disturbing and beautiful in equal measure and, quite frankly, worth the price of the ticket.
‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ runs until Sat 7 April. For more information on the production visit theatrebythelake.com. To book, call Box Office on 017687 74411.