A Streetcar Named Desire at West Walls Theatre
Written by Tennessee Williams
Directed by Stewart Grant
Tackling 'the classics' is always going to be something of a risky move for an amateur society. More often than not the weight of audience expectation, absolute reverence to the text or compulsion to reproduce what has successfully gone before hangs around a production's throat. A noose poised to kill, while the metaphorical hangman of the inevitable 'talent ceiling' waits in the wings ready to strike. They're called classics for a reason. Everyone knows them. Everyone loves them. Muck them up, and folk will be out for blood.
This time last year the Green Room Club opened their season with an equally ambitious take on a classic and smashed the troublesome gallows to pieces. The Importance of Being Earnest was in every conceivable fashion a roaring success. But Earnest is a light and witty soufflé, the stuff of larks and whimsy, delicate and refined, playing very much to the Green Room's strengths. In stark contrast, A Streetcar Named Desire is a slab of red meat. Stark, uncompromising and all too easy to render either bloodied and undigestible, or overdone and unbearable. Streetcar isn't just a classic, it's arguably the classic. As I noted before the play got underway that it shared a director with last years extremely disappointing Death of an Anarchist, I erected the gibbet and my mind and prepared to don the black hood.
Ninety minutes later, act one ended. The hangman was told to step down.
As act two drew to a close, and I realised I'd been holding my breath for the vast majority of it (not, I hasten to add, due to the use of cigarettes on stage. If you have reached the stage in your life where you are mortally offended by the use of a herbal cigarette in a play when you are clearly of sufficient maturity to have lived through over half a century of people smoking in restaurants, on public transport, in planes and wherever else they pleased, then may I kindly suggest your priorities are in desperate need of considerable realignment. It's neither big, clever, nor in any way justified to take such a righteous stance on something so utterly innocuous. Those so quick to offend are invariably the most ignorant. And if any of you are reading this post and take offence at that comment; good. It was thoroughly intended.), I finally exhaled, wiped a tear from my eye and erupted into an applause so furious I actually frightened the person seated beside me.
Lets get the quibbles out of the way first. No-one, least of all Williams himself, has even the slightest interest in any of the characters in Streetcar outside of the big three. They exist to further the plot or give time for a costume change, nothing more. As such, time in their company feels like time wasted- No disrespect intended to the actors filling these cameo roles. Drawing the most focus as the only character outside the triumvirate who is allowed to utter more than eight lines is Jason Munn as Mitch. It's a thankless role, part mummies boy, part love interest, part chauvinist, and Munn struggles to latch on to any particular aspect, instead offering a slightly awkward, stiff, squinting, occasionally 'Noo Yoik' accented vacuum it's difficult to find any affection for. Characters occasionally take the long way round the dinner table for no other reason than seemingly to 'give them a bit more movement', which never fails to look odd. Another minor gripe is the soundscape used for Blanche's recollections. The haunting, subtle echo of memory is instead replaced by a less than nuanced ON or OFF honky tonk, sounding more like a passing marching band than the whispered frailties of a woman on the edge.
But these are niggles, the tiniest of smudges on an otherwise flawless canvas lovingly painted by Streetcar's big three players. Stella is beautifully underplayed by newcomer Robin Laliberte, husky voiced, world weary and yet thoroughly knowing. Surrounded by mania, Laliberte provides a solid core to keep the audience grounded, a passive presence but impossible to overlook.
Seb Coombe is a revelation, utterly succeeding in perhaps the rarest of phenomena in amateur dramatics: Playing against type. I've watched Coombe in dozens of roles over the years and they've all possessed a certain similarity. A wry charm. A knowing twinkle. This isn't a criticism, indeed far from it. It's a definite skill to be able to draw these aspects out of any given character and to make the most of a seemingly natural gift. But in Streetcar, Coombe manages to find the off switch. Stanley Kowalski is not a nice man, and to so completely disengage the natural twinkle was thoroughly unnerving to watch - absolutely the state of mind an audience should be in while witnessing a man crush a deluded woman's spirit. That Coombe went from a magnificent Richard Hannay to such a deplorable skin crawling Stanley Kowalski is an absolute testament to his talent.
I noted in my review for the Theatre Downstairs production of Unholy Congregation that Sarah Coyle might just be the Green Room's secret weapon. I may have underestimated. It turns out she's the nuclear option. Never on the amateur stage have I seen a performance as powerful as Sarah Coyle playing Blanche DuBois. In equal parts delicately nuanced as it was painfully raw, Coyle peeled back the layers of Blanche over the course of the production, living every moment of the character's utter destruction. I keep wanting to call the performance effortless as means of a compliment, but in fact the opposite is true. Every effort in the world is being used to put Blanche through the emotional wringer, and Coyle captures every single moment and presents it to an audience with an unwavering truth. A nervous breakdown can not be an easy thing for an actor to portray, and Blanche's horrific screams as the doctor tries to calm her down are so painfully real I found myself moved to tears. There isn't enough praise on this earth for me to usher in Sarah Coyle's direction. It was a thing of beauty. Sheer perfection.
It almost goes without saying these days that the set design was superb, making full use of the limited space by ingeniously removing an entire wing of the stage and using using the stage balcony to full effect. The lighting in particular is worthy of considerable praise, particularly for the truly beautiful moments it created where a broken Blanche stepped out of the pure white light of the bathroom, her only place of serenity and peace, into the dingy apartment inhabited by the darkness that ultimately destroyed her.
The pace of the piece holds you on the very edge of your seat, particularly in the wholly uncompromising nerve shredder that is act two, and full credit to director Stewart Grant for assembling a production that in every sense of the word deserves the title of a true classic.