A Streetcar Named Desire explores primal human needs and limitations. In director Rebecca Frecknall’s stripped-down take, first playing at north London’s Almeida Theatre before transferring to the West End, creative subtraction reveals the play’s stark poetic soul. This deeply passionate revival of Tennessee Williams 1947 classic is flawlessly designed and bolstered by bewitching performances from the entire cast. Against an exposed brick backdrop suggesting New Orleans’ postwar decay, a flawless ensemble led by star Paul Mescal exposes the savagery within Williams’ wounded dreamers. By paring back familiar staging motifs, Frecknall foregrounds the raw intensity of Williams’ writing with a bare stage that denies escape through literal space. The performances from the cast make this production a masterclass in acting, yet not without the support of the outstanding creative team.
Premiering in 1947, the original Streetcar reflected cultural upheaval as America reckoned with WWII’s aftermath. The traumas of war left scars on the national psyche, which Williams captures the emotional precariousness of through psychologically wounded characters unable to fulfil fantasies of genteel Southern heritage.
Director Rebecca Frecknall takes a forensically minimalist approach, focusing on character over spectacle, leaving the production to become an X-ray revealing humanity’s base animal instincts. In stripping away period conventions, the Almeida production foregrounds timeless, primal edges in Williams’ writing – vulnerability, desire, and self-delusion. Echoes of today’s societal ruptures resonate throughout the dreamy, ominous soundscape.
By subtracting distractions, raw truths take centre stage.
With such minimal set, that cast is crucial in the delivery of this production, which is undoubtedly why it is so brilliant. Paul Mescal’s terrifying yet addicting portrayal as Stanley Kowalski shines, he seamlessly bounces between dominant, aggressive power to more tender passionate lust. Mescal locates the wounded boy within the monster, with his physicality driving the performance. Mescal’s muscular tall build aids him, however his strength comes from within. The audience believes Stanley is capable of anything, and most disturbingly his own self-justifications of his actions.
Patsy Ferran, who stepped in the night before the press show to cover for Lydia Wilson when she dropped out with an injury, proves equally remarkable as the delusional Blanche DuBois. Her portrayal shows a complex and pained Blanch, underscored with raw need and desire which in the end devastates the audience as they watch her decline. Ferran’s hyper-femininity externalizes Blanche’s performativity while hinting at hidden longings, embodying the idea of the “southern belle”. Together, she and Mescal form a perfect contrast of external polish against primal urges.
Anjana Vasa’s Stella is bittersweet with tender vulnerability, bringing a more naturalistic aspect to the performance. Vasa brings a quiet confidence to Stella unlike other portrayals of her, making her really shine in the production. Her chemistry with Mescal adds complexity to a potentially simplistic dynamic.
The supporting cast is equally as talented as the stars. Dwane Walcott amuses as Mitch, Stanley’s co-conspirator blindsided by his own shameful desire. Janet Etuk and Jabez Sykes round out the outstanding ensemble.
In a bold gambit, designer Madeleine Girling presents a bare brick playing space without any period or domestic detail. The blank stage forces focus onto character and language. Sparse set with a single dangling lightbulb evoke poverty and decay. The unorthodox blank stage of the play differs from other adaptations causing it to be controversial, yet its forensic feel enhances the tension. To keep with some of Williams original complex staging, interiors are suggested through lighting and mimed action – for example the lower edge of the stage being symbolic of the bathroom and the porch. This makes scenes feel more dreamlike than real. Props are also used to suggest set – for example a cooler and poker cards for the ‘poker night’ scene. Each prop is placed on the edge of the set by the ensemble for the actors on stage to grab and interact with.
Throughout the entirety of the performance, the entire ensemble hover around the stage space, like vultures, which keeps with Frecknall’s vision to show an exposed version of the play and highlighting the forensic side of the play. This artistic choice heightened the audiences engagement in the play, making the audience feel a strange sense of guilt at the end of the play as they feel complicit in the actions of the play.
Costumes by Merle Hensel provide subtle character details and set the time period. Blanche’s evening gown used at the climax of the play poignantly clings to Southern gentility. Stella’s housedress signal limited circumstances. The poker players’ shirts and Stanley’s bowling jacket capture working-class realities. Without elaborate trappings, the cast itself becomes Williams’ distressed theatrical canvas.
Composer Angus MacRae’s sparse score lingers at the edge of consciousness like memories too painful to confront. Haunting choral hums give way to bursts of staccato strings and pulsating percussion as emotional tensions erupt. In key moments, the noise dissolves completely into piercing silence or crashing drums.
Movement direction incorporates subtle, evocative choreography, using actors’ bodies to establish shifting dynamics. This is particularly noticeable in the climactic scene of the play when Stanley assaults Blanche, where Stanley moves to the floor in an animalistic style, creating the idea of predator and prey between Stanley and Blanche. The movement choreography in this scene is undoubtedly what makes it so impactful, leaving it to become the most memorable of the entire performance.
Frecknall’s Streetcar earned both praise and insult for its nontraditional approach. Mescal’s performance was widely acclaimed as virtuosic, elevating the production. But the spartan staging and rearrangement of signature moments turned off traditionalists. Most audiences embraced the stripped-down take, though a few found the forensic focus exhausting.
Overall strong reviews and Mescal’s star power fueled brisk ticket sales, especially among younger demographics and Hollywood fans. Critics lauded Mescal’s volcanic Stanley as “terrifying” (Timeout) and “toxically masculine” (The Standard). Patsy Ferran also earned raves as she discarded “all the usual breathy clichés” (The Independent) and called a “butterfly… who maintains a steely front in her power battles with Stanley” (The Guardian). Some bemoaned the lack of sultry New Orleans atmosphere, but most praised Frecknall’s approach, calling it “emotionally revelatory”.
The Almeida’s electric revival of A Streetcar Named Desire revisits a beloved text with clear eyes. Director Rebecca Frecknall trains focus on primal human complexities, not period trappings. Against a bare brick backdrop, star Paul Mescal channels masculine volatility in his devastating turn as Stanley. Patsy Ferran beautifully navigates Blanche DuBois’ self-deceptions on a pathos-filled journey. Supporting elements coalesce into a dreamlike theatrical ecosystem, allowing Williams’ gritty poetry to scintillate.
Stripped of sentimentality, Williams’ poetry and humanity burn brighter than the bare bulb hovering over the stage. Whether you’re a traditionalist of not, this unorthodox production is risk taking and promises to further ignite cultural debate.