The Almeida's production of A Streetcar Named Desire quickly sold out, presumably helped by the casting of Paul Mescal as Stanley. But the play's drama started before it opened: A few days before previews began, its Blanche - Lydia Wilson - had to pull out.
Olivier-winner* Patsy Ferran stepped into the breach taking on the lead role, the first week of performances was cancelled to give her some rehearsal time, and the press night was pushed back to January (yes, this performance was an unintended preview).
While it wasn't referenced that Ferran would have a script with her in the stage manager's brief pre-performance speech, she had a black, hardbacked notebook with her throughout. However, it didn't really register for a long time until she seamlessly opened it, glanced at a page and then closed it again without missing a beat.
In fact, I hardly noticed her looking at it; it was held like a prop as if it was dear possession, an item of comfort that Blanche clings to. And it was the only slight hint of having had so little time to prepare. She was that good.
The other unexpectedly great performance was director Rebecca Frecknall, who stood in to play Eunice.
Pushing last-minute substitutions to one side, this production is a very different beast from others I've seen. For a start, Ferran's Blanche is so fragile. You really get the sense of this being someone who is damaged, rendered delicate with frayed nerves.
Hers is a sweet charm, an almost innocent flirtation which she can turn on almost like a reflex rather than a more overt sexiness of other portrayals. Her behaviour feels like her protective casing from years of trying to numb past trauma.
Menacing performance from Mescal
I feared for her before the brute that is Stanley had even stepped on stage. And Mescal's Stanley is menacing. Previously only having seen him play very gentle and quiet characters; it was great to watch.
Everything he did, from checking a bottle of liquor to see how much had been drunk to changing his shirt, felt charged. He didn't stalk the 'apartment', he moved as someone who owns the space and everyone within it.
Whenever he was on stage, it felt dangerous, that he could lash out as he does with his wife Stella (Anjana Vasan).
Stanley and Stella's is an interesting relationship. There was great chemistry between the two - Stella is besotted despite the domestic abuse.
And this feels like a play primarily about abuse, both what goes on in the small apartment and what has happened in the past to Blanche.
There is no set, just a raised square platform with the actors sitting off to the sides and occasionally placing the few props that are used on the side of the stage when needed.
Frecknall introduces segments of 'slow-motion', creating a brief pause which sometimes felt like it was in the way of the story rather than enhancing it.
However, she has also introduced a character from Blanche's past not traditionally seen: Her dead husband.
He appears silently on stage, a ghost from the past haunting Blanche's present and a reminder of her lost love and perhaps some guilt about the traumatic circumstances around that loss. It is a nice touch.
The drama that preceded the first performances of A Streetcar Named Desire was quickly forgotten, such is the strength of the production and performances. Kudos has to go to Ferran and the rest of the cast for what they deliver after not ideal circumstances.
I'm giving A Streetcar Named Desire ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ and a half.
* Ferran won her Olivier for another Tennesse Williams play: Summer and Smoke which was also directed by Frecknall at the Almeida. Read my review here.
A Streetcar Named Desire, Almeida Theatre
Written by Tennessee Williams.
Directed by Rebecca Frecknall
Running time: 2 hours 55 minutes, including an interval
Booking until 4 February, although the run is completely sold out, check out the Almeida website for details of how to get returns.
Orlando, Garrick Theatre ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ booking until 25 February
Othello, National Theatre ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ booking until 21 January
Good, Harold Pinter Theatre ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ now booking until 7 January 2023.
Elliot Levey making the most of a non-matinee day for Good - and getting gushed over by a fan.