‘Seven Arts,’ Harrogate Road, Chapel Allerton, Leeds.
Tuesday 13th November 2012.
A Streetcar Named Desire by Leeds University Theatre Group (TG); directed by Liana Telvi and Kris Bennell.
Reviewed by Holly Boyden- first year English Literature and Theatre student.
Tennessee William’s steamy and hectic play is a directorial dream; complicated characters with sordid pasts and tenuous relationships adorn a backdrop of rum drenched New Orleans. A Streetcar Named Desire is literally my favourite piece of theatre, so when I heard Liana and Kris’ proposal at the beginning of term, I was thrilled, and I was determined to be a part of it. After a gruelling audition process, I got down to final few girls for the part of Blanche, and I have no shame in saying that it was crushing when I didn’t get the part. Such is life. So I dusted myself down, put on my intimidating theatre reviewing cap and settled for a place in the audience. However, being the wily critic that I am, this meant that, (if only to massage my bruised thespian ego,) I was looking for something extremely special, not only from the directors, but from the actors. Hold onto your wife beaters guys.
Walking into auditorium, you walked into New Orleans. It was as simple as that. Not only did the directors choose to have a member of the cast circulating in the foyer area, in character, the set had been researched and dressed immaculately, with vintage details running all the way through, right down to the old fashioned Kellog’s box on the kitchen counter. The low lighting and two man jazz band assuaged our passage into the Deep South and cast a professional spell on the whole production. As the play progressed, more and more vintage trinkets emerged and you truly forgot that the characters were kids of the twenty first century. I would also say that the costumes were actually more convincing, better researched and more artfully arranged than the costumes in WYP’s professional production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, (which is saying something.) Flora Line (Blanche) was dressed immaculately and had an air of a more beautiful, more vulnerable Coco Chanel, whilst Jordan Larkin (Stanley) was living up to the Lana Del Rey idea of James Dean (Blue jeans, white shirt, you walked into the room you know you made my eyes burn etc...) Most striking though I felt was Cordelia Morrison, as she made the traditionally retiring Stella into a ravishing and red blooded young woman with her mad men style pencil skirt and has a figure that could stop traffic. The resulting mise-en-scène was seductive, dangerous and sumptuous. I dread to think how much it cost, but it was perfect.
Something I found really satisfying about this production is the fact that these amateur actors did a better job of naturalism than many trained actors could have done. This is obviously a very rare phenomenon and I still can’t put my finger on it one hundred percent but I think it is down to the fact that they were not as susceptible to falling into ‘acting traps’ or clichéd characterisation. In essence, their inexperience made them professional, they not being trained and therefore haven’t got so much Meisner/Stanislavski theory pumping through their veins. This meant that they approached their roles with less self-consciousness, they just became the characters, and with talented enough performers (such as we had here,) this approach works. The undisputed stars of the show were Stella and Stanley (Cordelia and Jordan), and I know from the audition process that what Kris and Liana were looking for above all else was chemistry between the men and the women. Stella is often a character who is overlooked in productions, and to some extent the text itself focuses much more heavily on the relationship between Blanche and Stanley. I found it inspired that this relationship took a backseat in this particular Streetcar, and it was the libidinal love between Stella and Stanley that permeated the production. This particular Stanley Stella chemistry made the ending of the play so much easier to swallow than the text does, and even in the 1951 film we still don’t see how Stella chose Stanley over Blanche. Here the lantern was well and truly ripped off the whole affair and Stella’s passion for Stanley became the naked light bulb - I have never seen a girl look so in love, but also be so worshipped (albeit in a dysfunctional way) in return. A mention must be given to performances by Arthur Geldard (Steve) and Alex Hargreaves (Mitch.) Arthur delivered his lines with precision and hilarity; ‘do you want it in the PAPERS?!’ and with a sense of comic timing that is enviable. Alex’s Mitch was brimming with tragic passion for Blanche, and particularly impressive is the explosive scene where Blanche is taken to the asylum, and Mitch loses his head. We see the anguish and realisation flash across his face; he does care for her, and as the audience we get the sense that maybe everything could have been different.
Despite this production tilting more of the light onto the Stanley Stella relationship, Flora Line was a stunning new take on the Blanche character. Flora’s tiny frame and delicate physicality was perfect for the part, and I liked the way that she used constant gesticulation and a spider like twitching of her fingers to evoke Blanche’s scattiness. Refreshingly, there was no trace of the whimsical Vivien Leigh in Flora’s portrayal; Flora’s voice is deeper, somewhat calmer, and she was more self-assured. This was an interesting characterisation choice, a choice that at the start I was not sure of, as I really did not feel that this Blanche was ‘flighty’ enough and she pelted through her words in such a way that I felt she was not emotionally investing, or finding enough trauma in them. However, further into the play, it became clear that Flora’s method of toning Blanche down actually aided her eventual descent into madness as this change in behaviour grabbed our attention and we were able to see a marked difference. I like that Kris and Liana did not let the production become engulfed by Blanche’s self-destruction, they took a risk by not allowing her madness to drive the train in the traditional style, and it paid off. I am chuffed to admit that the Telvi-Bennell take on A Streetcar Named Desire was the best thing to come out of TG this term. Anyone who was expecting me to get my claws out for this one must be sorely disappointed.