Review: Streetcar Named Desire at Cambridge Arts Theatre has shock, drama and dance

A Streetcar Named Desire at Cambridge Arts Theatre

A Streetcar Named Desire at Cambridge Arts Theatre - Credit: Richard Davenport, The Other Richard

The faded Southern Belle, Blanche DuBois in Tennessee Williams’ play A Streetcar Named Desire is one of the most difficult roles to perform.

Kelly Gough gives us a heartbroken Blanche who brings delicate humour to the role. She wears her grief lightly telling her story in the understated way that people who have been through tragedies so often do, seeing the ironies. That makes the open anguish when she tells how her young husband died, all the more powerful. A little masterpiece. This is a truly bravura performance.

The 1947 play which won a Pulitzer Prize, centres round Blanche who takes a streetcar named Desire to her married sister Stella’s home in New Orleans. She arrives shocked and distressed to find Stella living in a run-down tenement.

Desire is the play’s theme. Stella (played neatly here by Amber James, she is a real person who creates a world) dismisses her husband’s thuggish brutality because he’s good in bed. She confuses that with love. When Blanche can’t understand why Stella goes back to him after he has hit her, her sister tells her: “There are things that happen between a man and woman in the dark that make everything else seem unimportant.”

Blanche sees Stanley for what he is. He’s in the stone age, she says. “Thousands and thousands of years have passed him by.”

Stanley, for his part, thinks he sees Blanche for what she is. She lives in a world of pretence. She says she tells the truth not as it is but as it ought to be. When life is unbearable, she creates another reality to live in.

Stanley is without compassion or pity. It’s off his radar. He doesn’t understand Blanche and what he doesn’t understand makes him angry. Patrick Knowles might play him too well. His relentless violence and bullying carries shock and menace but is sometimes too hectoring in tone. You just want to get a gun out and shoot him. He must surely have had some charm at some point (albeit animal) for Stella to want to find out about the things that happen in the dark.

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This athletic and sometimes balletic production, by English Touring Theatre, Theatr Clwyd and Nuffield Southampton Theatres, directed by Chelsea Walker, is set in the present day and a highlight is the exuberant dance scene (to Blondie’s Heart of Glass) between Blanche and a young errand boy she seduces, played by Joe Manjon.

Mostly the modern setting works, though occasionally the script says one thing and the props and costume say another and you wonder whether taking the set apart to illustrate Blanche’s breakdown at the end is needed when the actress gives such a powerful performance.

Why go to the trouble of installing a working shower on stage for realism and then not bother to dress as nurses the two people who take Blanche away to the asylum? They are still in the cheerful shorts and jeans they have worn as other characters throughout the play.

That said, this is a memorable production which packs a lot of punch.

A Streetcar Named Desire is at Cambridge Arts Theatre until Saturday, May 5.