Here in Liverpool we’re used to seeing excellent performances at the Everyman, Playhouse, Unity and others – especially given the lengthy run of hits at the Everyman and Playhouse under the stewardship of Gemma Bodinetz and Deborah Aydon – but a note-perfect performance is rare indeed; something an avid theatre-goer may only see once or twice in a lifetime.
That Amanda Drew gave such a heartbreakingly wonderful performance as Blanche Dubois in the Playhouse production of Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire was one thing, but for it to take place in a performance of such all-round quality was rare indeed.
At the centre of it all is Drew’s Blanche; a southern lady with airs and graces and secrets and weaknesses and traumas. She is intelligent, eloquent, beautiful and worldy wise enough to recognise in brother-in-law Stanley Kowalski what her little sister cannot.
When she turns up at the grimy New Orleans apartment where Stella and Stanley reside she upsets the delicate dynamic between the two and quickly becomes a thorn in Stanley’s side; annoying him with her affectations and superiority – and threatening to drive a wedge between himself and Stella. But Blanche has not only Stanley to contend with; her past threatens to come back to haunt her – and haunt her it does.
Gemma Bodinetz has taken no short cuts in the lengthy text. At the best part of three hours it’s a slow burn; looks and pauses and laughs are loaded with meaning and the cast spark off one another wonderfully.
The set is crooked, claustrophobic, vaguely expressionist; the wonderful music tells of a sleazy, lazy quarter of New Orleans, sweating in summer heat. You can imagine the shirt sticking to Mitch’s back; the frost on the beers that Stanley and his goons drink while playing cards.
What was there to be faulted here? Perhaps the odd accent – so important in maintaining belief in a play – went awry, but those little attentions to detail like the virtually immaculate accents, particularly among the leads, and the cast learning how to play poker all added up.
Matthew Flynn’s Mitch is believable as the slightly dull, awkward but basically decent Mitch – Blanche’s only hope of salvation. Over 100 minutes into the play the couple embrace, having agreed to live together, at the interval. One almost wished it could have ended there – a happy ending for everyone in this most unhappy of plays.
Leanne Best was very good as Stella; ingenuous, gauche but not without resolve herself. Best played wonderfully off Drew and Troughton; the breath of fresh air in both their lives and a delicate rag doll to pull between them.
Sam Troughton’s Stanley Kowalski, forever in the shadow of Brando, was very strong – entering the play with a leer and calculating, challenging stare. He may be childish, brutish and atavistic, but Stanley is nobody’s fool. Troughton imbues him with the right mix of violence, slyness and vulnerability.
And in a production that has even smaller parts played the excellent Annabelle Apsion and Alan Stocks, Streetcar is as close to perfect as you’ll find on the stage.
As the play wears on, Stanley and Blanche play the other characters like a game of chess – each aware of the other’s true characters; and the naivety of those around them.
But Blanche is doomed by circumstance; a woman driven to instability and poverty – and more than simply the kindness of strangers – by cruel destiny and shattered innocence.
Despite her wit and formidable facade, it’s a battle she can never win. Taut as an elastic band and fragile as china, Blanche’s world comes tumbling down in the most undignified manner imaginable.
When the end comes, with Blanche cowering like a caged animal, it’s a devastating pay-off. That we care so deeply for a woman so snobbish and hypocritical – and not above manipulating others to serve her own needs – is down to Drew, who draws a vivid portrait of a kind of woman most will recognise.
We can overlook her foibles and her lies; we can sympathise with her rotten fortune and past tragedies; we can cross our fingers for a happy ending for her with Mitch; when she’s led away at the end our heart goes out to her.
Amanda Drew’s performance is simply the best we’ve ever seen on the Playhouse stage – and that is some compliment indeed.
A StreetCar Named Desire
Until 10 March
Images by Stephen Vaughan