Review: A Streetcar Named Desire, NST City Southampton

Chelsea Walker helms a blistering update of A Streetcar Named Desire in a co-production between Nuffield Southampton Theatres, Theatr Clwyd and English Touring Theatre 

“You can’t beat on a woman and then call her back”

If Blanche DuBois were around today, then of course her go-to tunes would be the likes of Madonna and Blondie, and a glitterball would take the place of her colourful paper lantern. And as the strains of ‘Material Girl’ gets most everyone up and dancing at the end of a fateful poker night, Chelsea Walker’s contemporary take on this Tennessee Williams classic finds its happy place.

Of course, it’s A Streetcar Named Desire so that happy place lasts for a moment of seconds before Patrick Knowles’ brutish Stanley reasserts himself. And what Walker’s clever updating does is to not let itself get bogged down in minor textual incongruities, but to firmly locate its troubling sexual dynamics in the gender politics of right now. 

In his boardshorts and wifebeater, Knowles makes for a crueller, sharper Stanley, his febrile nature explosively close to the surface. Whether attacking a watermelon with a hunting knife or ensuring Stella’s casual gear is one of his bowling shirts (Amber James movingly lost in a sexual fug), there’s no doubting he and his bros embody a toxic masculinity that is tragic in its widespread acceptance.

Against this, Kelly Gough’s Blanche cuts an agonising figure. Her affectations and mannerisms more obviously a protective cocoon, hollowed from the inside out by drink and weakened by the chipping away at a truth that won’t be denied. Dexter Flanders imbues his Mitch with much decency and there’s illustrative work from Maria Louis’ upstairs neighbour Eunice, living out her own fully-fleshed story even if we only get occasional glimpses of it. 

Walker’s reinterpretation of the play is thrillingly done throughout, slowburning at first as sequences of Shelley Maxwell’s imaginative movement hint at the dislocation to come. And then Georgia Lowe’s harshly functional design comes into play brilliantly as Walker peels back the layers of decades of indulgent treatments of this play, to lay bare its haunting desperation at what society has become, orwhat it is still is. #TimesUp.

Running time: 2 hours 50 minutes (with interval)
Photos: The Other Richard
A Streetcar Named Desire is booking at Nuffield City until 31st March and then touring to:
 3-7 April Theatre by the Lake, Keswick
10-14 April Malvern Theatre, Malvern
17-21 April Bristol Old Vic, Bristol
24-28 April New Wolsley Theatre, Ipswich
1-5 May Cambridge Arts Theatre, Cambridge
8-12 May Oxford Playhouse, Oxford
15 May – 2 June Theatr Clwyd, Mold
5-16 June Nuffield Theatre, Southampton

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