A Streetcar Named Desire at the Almeida review: Paul Mescal is horribly good and Patsy Ferran is astonishing

Paul Mescal and Patsy Ferran in A Streetcar Named Desire  (Marc Brenner)
Paul Mescal and Patsy Ferran in A Streetcar Named Desire (Marc Brenner)

This wrenchingly sad, stark staging of Tennessee Williams’s play is the stuff theatrical myths are made of, and the first great London show of 2023. Starring Paul Mescal as the toxically masculine Stanley Kowalski, in his first stage role since Normal People propelled him to nice-guy TV stardom, it was delayed and recast when lead actress Lydia Wilson withdrew due to an injury.

The sublime Patsy Ferran stepped into the role of Blanche DuBois, the ageing southern belle whose gentility masks mental illness and sexual desperation, as if born to it. She, Mescal and Anjana Vasan as Stella, Blanche’s sister and Stanley’s wife, provide the core of emotional truth to Rebecca Frecknall’s production. All three act with their whole bodies.

The Kowalskis’ cramped New Orleans apartment is represented by a central dais, like a gladiatorial arena. The rest of the cast loom on the fringes, stonily observing, introducing props as if they were weapons. There is something ritualistic here about the way rancorous opposites Blanche and Stanley collide, with pregnant Stella caught in the middle.

For decades Streetcar lived under the long shadow of the 1951 Marlon Brando/Vivien Leigh film, but that influence has now faded. Even so, it has become almost traditional in the past 20 years for stage directors to be radical with this well-known work. Frecknall, fresh from her seismic reinvention of Kander and Ebb’s Cabaret, goes further than most.

Paul Mescal and Anjana Vasan in A Streetcar Named Desire (Marc Brenner)
Paul Mescal and Anjana Vasan in A Streetcar Named Desire (Marc Brenner)

She strips away the Louisiana sweatiness of Williams’s play to make it harsher and colder. The costumes are bright approximations of postwar American fashion and the set amounts to two chairs and a suitcase. There are dance/mime intrusions from ghosts of the past.

A rock drummer in the gallery signals scene changes and emotional flashpoints with thumping crescendos, and designer Madeleine Girling introduces sudden downpours of rain onstage: both these things have become theatrical cliches recently but are undeniably effective here.

It could still seem tricksy if the central performances weren’t so riveting. Ferran picks her way subtly through every agonising downward step of Blanche’s self-deceiving, self-destructive path. Vasan imbues Stella with both sisterly heartache and forceful passion for her husband. It’s a delight to see the two actresses reunited, having co-starred in Frecknall’s revelatory production of Williams’s Summer and Smoke at this theatre back in 2018.

And Mescal? He’s horribly good: an insinuating, cat-like Kowalski with a wicked smirk and an incipient mullet, the violence in him barely battened down. The chemistry between the three leads is toxic but potent. A word, too, for Dwane Walcott, whose performance as Blanche’s suitor Mitch is beautifully understated and gentle.

Tennessee Williams doesn’t do happy endings but this production represents a triumph over disaster. Frecknall proves herself again to be a director of great vision and invention. And the performance that Ferran has pulled out of a hat, and the way she’s seamlessly integrated it with those of her impressive co-stars, is frankly astonishing.

Almeida Theatre, to February 4; Almeida.co.uk