Theatre Critic and Journalist

Review: Secret Theatre Show 2, Lyric Hammersmith

Review: Secret Theatre Show 2, Lyric Hammersmith

Spoilers etc.

Show Two sets out to lay down a marker. It’s a play that has crystallised – if not outright fossilised – over time, largely because of an iconic, game-changing, definitive film adaptation, from which it just can’t escape. Even if you haven’t seen it in full before, you could probably stage a standard version in your mind’s eye. You already know the breathy Southern belle voice. You can already picture the stretched white T-shirt and echo the iconic roar into the night. You can trace the spiral staircase, hear the sultry, humid gramaphone and practically smell the shadowy, smoky New Orleans streets.

Can you tell what it is yet? That’s right, kids, it’s Streetcar – yes, Tenessee Williams’ play even has it’s own shorthand – and if you’ve seen it before, chances are you’ve seen a knock-off Marlon Brando, a two-bit Vivien Leigh and an Elysian Fields inspired by Elia Kazan’s celluloid original. Evidence? Here’s Iain Glen as Stanley Kowalski. Here’s Elliot Cowan. Here’s Blair Underwood.

Sean Holmes’ production is absolutely determined to send a shockwave through that. It wants to buckle those shadowy streets and tear down the spiral staircase. It is an anti-Streetcar, if you like, one that either quotes or subverts, but never replicates, assumes or falls in. Almost every choice is offset against the norm. Holmes is determined to show that nothing’s sacred, not even Streetcar. He brings a sledgehammer down on a concrete idol.

“My feeling is that Streetcar is going to make people fucking furious,” he told me mid-rehearsal in June. “David Hare does what he does; that’s allowed. What you can’t do – Blanche can’t have one fucking arm; her sister can’t be mixed race.” He could have gone on: Estonians can’t come over here and take iconic, above-the-title leads like Stanley K; beanpoles like Leo Bill can’t play muscular six-footers like Harold ‘Mitch’ Mitchell; Tenessee Williams can’t be done in British accents on blank white sets with bowling balls, watermelon and balloons.

Well, it can and – even in a production that hasn’t entirely mastered its chosen style – it pays some huge dividends. Holmes seems to press refresh on the play, letting you understand it for yourself. It becomes a living piece of art, not an artefact – and certainly not a piece of historical source material. There’s no need for programme notes on 1940s New Orleans – because, hell, who goes to the theatre to learn about the racial tensions and economic climate of post-war America?

Suddenly you see not Blanche and Stella DuBois (Nadia Albina and Stella Leonce), but two unremarkable middle-class sisters out of their natural habitat; one at home there, the other at odds. They could be in Shoreditch; a long way from the Home Counties. You know girls like this. You understand the terror of turning 30 when life isn’t working out as you’d imagined, when the husband you banked on hasn’t materialised and your every life choice to date seems questionable. You understand why women might stay with men that beat them – because they choose to be, because they’re “not in anything to get out of,” because they have hope for the future and faith in the man. You realise that niceties and decorum are a buffer zone, that youth is volatile and all the more sexy for it, that sex motors the world.

You also get a form of literary criticism. Holmes ticks boxes: ice cream to seed the idea that it’s sweltering; bowling balls that signify young Americana – think James Dean cool, not fusty old Tennessee Williams; belting, bluesy soul music that taps into some notion of New Orleans. Blanche enters with a block of suitcases. Hyemi Shin’s design pits Stanley’s red against Blanche’s blue, encapsulating the territorial tussle that is the play’s central action. The masculine poker game here becomes an all-red watermelon binge that carries the same essence of insouciant slobbishness and confrontation. Shin’s high white walls, over which actors climb, function as the high-rise, but also as an animal enclosure with Stanley (Sergo Vares) a dangerous animal out of his natural habitat. Stanley’s first act on returning home is to lob down a frozen leg of meat; the mechanic back from work becomes a predator returning with prey. He slumps in a chair like a boxer in his corner. Later he’ll approach a suspended strip light as it were a punchbag.

There’s more within: Albina’s disability makes every mention of beauty ping out of the text; Leonce’s colour squeezes extra questions about the poor neighbourhood; Vares’ unchanged Eastern European accent nudges the issue of immigration from 1940’s American to contemporary Britain. Holmes isn’t glossing over these oddities, he’s deploying them like firecrackers in a lottery machine.

Don’t get me wrong; this is a long way from perfect. There’s too much dead time and too many slumps. Plenty of moments could go far, far further and register much, much stronger. Again, there’s a need for tighter dramaturgical control – too many points are made once then dropped and, too often, the production manages only one image or idea at a time. The ensemble of actors – with Vares, Albina and most of all Bill the honourable exceptions – are still getting used to what’s required of them. In a standard production, actors can hide behind craft (accents, physicality and the like). Here, they’re exposed; only artistry counts; invention and presence.

However, the biggest problem is that this Streetcar is inevitably stripped of purpose. It’s limited by not having something particular to say and it addresses theatre before the world. It’s more a display team demonstration, than it is a cultural intervention, and aims, first and foremost, to prove its own potential. In which case, job done.

Photograph: Alexandra Davenport

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