Monday 9 September 2013

Theatre review: Secret Theatre Show 2

Once again, the Lyric Hammersmith is closed for several months to allow building of their new educational annexe. But although the front-of-house is a construction site, the auditorium itself is not being touched, so this time around Sean Holmes has come up with a new plan to keep things going: A young ensemble of 20-something actors will be resident for a year alongside other creatives, who will build up a repertory season.

As an additional twist, the shows are being billed as Secret Theatre, and initially sold to audiences who have no idea what show they've booked to see. (I don't know, realistically, how long they expect the secret to be kept, and if they intend to extend the runs they'll have to relax the secrecy sooner or later, most people won't want to leave their evening's entertainment entirely to chance.) In the spirit of the thing, I won't be revealing the titles of the show on the front page of my blog (you might want to avoid looking at the labels as well) for the sake of anyone who wants to play along (and who wasn't spoiled by HIGHLY PROFESSIONAL theatre reviewers tweeting the title in the interval so they can say they got the exclusive, like one of those people who comments "FIRST!" after an online article.) For those who want to know what they're booking for, I'll review after the cut. The first two shows are now running in rep; tonight I caught Show 2.

Or, as it's more commonly known, Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire. Sisters Blanche and Stella grew up in relative luxury on a Southern plantation, but their old home has gone to the creditors by the time Blanche goes to stay with Stella and her new husband Stanley in a tiny New Orleans apartment. The fragile fantasist Blanche is a poor match for the rough Stanley, and she mercilessly goads him even as he crushes what's left of her sanity.

Holmes directs on an almost-bare stage which designer Hyemi Shin has given a few tall white walls and little else. These stripped-back visuals lead Holmes to strip back even further, and lose the Southern accents which are one of the first things one associates with Tennessee Williams' work. So the cast speak with their real accents for the most part, which also means that instead of Polish-American, Stanley (Sergo Vares) is now actually Polish. Like Chekhov, Williams' work is so rooted in his time and place that it's rare to see him taken out of context so, successful or not, it's refreshing to see a different take - and as one of the stronger plays, Streetcar fares relatively well in its stark new home. There's the odd moment in the script that really jars with the European accents and modern dress, and if Holmes was going to add a couple of "fucks" to the text it's a shame he didn't feel like he could have made a couple of bigger alterations to fit it into his conceit.

As I mentioned, this is a very young cast all round, so Nadia Albina isn't really old enough to convince as Blanche, and I was disappointed in the first half that she didn't really give any suggestion of the character's mental instability, beyond the amount of alcohol she necks. She's a lot better as the play starts to reach its conclusion and her character falls apart more. She also gets a boost from playing opposite Leo Bill as a particularly gormless Mitch, the man who takes a shine to her but can't deal with her past being a bit less snow-white than she's made out. Adelle Leonce is effective as a dungaree-clad Stella who turns on a real intensity as her sister is taken away from her, and Steven Webb pops up in a funny cameo as the paperboy Blanche makes an embarrassing pass at.

With any literal depiction of 1947 New Orleans out of the window, the production is free to go in as expressionistic a direction as it likes: It opens with Stanley bowling a frozen joint of meat down the stage (and almost into the front row) and includes people hanging off the sheer walls, a shower cubicle that gets pushed around the stage, and a card game represented by Vares, Bill, Hammed Animashaun and Billy Seymour polishing off an entire watermelon between them. My favourite moment of invention though involved a paper party hat being turned into something else entirely when Blanche calls out "fire!"

Although there are those moments that stand out like a sore thumb, it's interesting to hear those others where Williams' very particular style of dialogue fits quite well into a London or Polish accent. The production stands as a fascinating experiment rather than a complete triumph (the running time alone should be a clue that the pace needs work) but if A Streetcar Named Desire doesn't entirely suit its new coat of paint, Holmes makes a good argument against the idea that only one colour will do.

A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams is booking in repertory until the 2nd of October at the Lyric Hammersmith.

Running time: 3 hours 5 minutes including interval.

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