Stars explained: * A production of no real merit with failings in all areas. ** A production showing evidence of not enough time or effort, or even talent, and which never breathes any real life into the piece – or a show lumbered with a terrible script. *** A good enjoyable show which might have some small flaws but has largely achieved what it set out to do.**** An excellent show which shows a great deal of work and stage craft with no noticeable or major flaws.***** A four star show which has found that extra bit of magic which lifts theatre to another plane.
Half stars fall between the ratings

Blanche and Stella

Emily Armstrong as Blanche Dubois and Phebe Jackson as Stella

A Streetcar Named Desire

Sutton Arts Theatre


BLANCHE Dubois is a dream part for any actress and Emily Armstrong turns in a dream performance as the fragile, insecure, aging Southern Belle.

She is simply superb, well worth the ticket price alone, not that she is the only actor or reason for seeing this fine production which makes its mark from set to sound and acting to lighting.

Written in 1947 it is set in a run down one room apartment in the French Quarter of New Orleans where Blanche, having succumbed to a mountain of debt and lost the family home, the once large plantation Belle Reve in Laurel, Mississippi, arrives to stay with her sister Stella and her husband Stan Kowalski.

Ostensibly she is on a leave of absence from her job as a school teacher because of her nerves and is full of dismay at the way her sister is living in one room with a husband who is “common” and “an ape”.

In reality Blanche lives in a world of self-deception, she is always the gentile, cultured Southern Belle, and in her mind she is always the heroine and always the victim.

She even admits it, saying: ““I don't want realism. I want magic! Yes, yes, magic! I try to give that to people. I misrepresent things to them. I don't tell the truth, I tell what ought to be the truth. And if that's sinful, then let me be damned for it”.

And damned she is . . .as the truth stalks her we see her slow disintegration as she has to face up to both her past and her present until her mind finally deserts her.

It is a powerful performance full of long complex and often emotion speeches which requires that slow transformation from confident, even arrogant, socialite to a distressed, shamed, aging . . . dare we say it? . . . slut.

Armstrong measures it to perfection. We see the increased drinking, her dislike of Stan, her chasing of Stan’s poker buddy Mitch who she sees as marriage and security, and finally, we see her fall apart as the truth envelops her.

Set against that is sister Stella, played by Phebe Jackson who is turning into a fine all round actress. She loves Stan, despite his brutish and at times violent ways, but she also loves her sister and tries unsuccessfully to keep the peace.

Stan and Blanche

Robbie Newton as Stan and a cowering Blanche

In one ear she has Stan running down her sister and telling lurid tales about her, in the other is Blanche telling her to leave Stan with one particularly long speech in which she tells her: “Don't hang back with the brutes!”

Unbeknown to her, Stan hears that one, which gives their already stormy relationship a new edge. Jackson’s role is an emotional roller coaster and she rides it well.

Stan mistrusts Blanche from the start, fearing that somehow Stella, and by marriage, himself, have been cheated out of their inheritance with the loss of Belle Reve, which leads to his fateful digging into her past with a salesmen he knows who passes regularly through Laurel.

Robbie Newton, another Sutton Arts regular, shows his wide-ranging talent again as Stan. He is a quick-tempered brute of a man who sees himself as king of all he surveys. He always seems angry and after one particularly violent episode, realistically hitting Stella, we see what passes as his tender side seems to consist of saying sorry and sex.

How he manages to get three mates round once a week for poker nights is a mystery as he treats them much as he treats his women.

One of them is Mitch played by the reliable Dexter Whitehead. Mitch is gentler than the rest, a man with manners, unworldly, nervous with women, single, with a decent job, and looking after his dying mother, soon to be alone with his mother's appartment.

A cynic might say he is an ideal target for a penniless, homeless Banche whose whole life is packed in a suitcase. The romantic might say it is what both of them need.

He goes from rather sweet Mitch, nervously asking for a kiss from the bubbly Blanche to angry, betrayed Mitch as the truth emerges. He is on the verge of raping her as a sort of revenge for the hurt until she screams fire and he runs off in tears with both their futures devastated.

collector and blanche

Ollie Farrelly as the young collector in danger of being Blanched

Her reputation goes before her now and when Stella is taken to hospital to have her baby, and she is left alone with Stan, she tries to defend herself with a broken bottle but to no avail. Stan in a mix of anger and lust declares: “We've had this date with each other from the beginning.” And forces himself upon her.

Perhaps it is that rape by a man she despises, and who despises her, that pushes Blanche finally over the edge into a complete breakdown and as she is led away, telling the doctor (Allan Lane): “Whoever you are - I have always depended on the kindness of strangers”, Mitch is left in tears and Stella breaks down sobbing with Stan with his arms around her. Behind them, the weekly poker game goes on.

There is good support from Suzy Donnelly as neighbour Eunice and Richard Price as her husband Steve, warring about his dalliances with other women, as well as James Brain, as the other poker regular Pablo.

A nice interlude as well from Ollie Farrelly as a young door to door collector who only just avoids the attentions of Blanche by the skin of his . . . well, flies if truth be known and Beverley Alleyne helps set the Deep South scene as a Negro Woman.

Another star of the show is the brilliant set, designed by Mark Nattrass and built by a team large enough to start their own union and pension scheme. Sutton Arts’ stage has no wings, no flies and not a great deal of depth which, perhaps, concentrates the mind somewhat to regularly produce inventive and very professional sets that defy and hide the limitations.

Here we have the one room apartment with dividing curtain and cutaway walls, complete with bathroom and toilet, basin, bath and working shower. The backdrop is a New Orleans street with a side entry and a stoop leading to Eunice’s upstairs apartment. They even manage to make it seem hot and sultry helped by sweaty stains on shirts, in particular, on the hefty Mitch.

Costumes all look authentic and the scene is set by music, some of which the programme tells us was composed by Tom Brookes. Williams is very specific in his stage directions about the music from blue piano to drum beats and the polka Varsouviana, playing when Blanche’s husband died, is a recurring theme as her mind disintegrates.

Sound, with passing streetcars, shouts and music is well handled in David Ashton and Emily Armstrong’s design, all competently operated by Wanda Harris while Elaine Ensor had to be on the ball with Ashton’s lighting which is much more complex than a normal play.

The Deep South accent is not the easiest and purists might find fault with the the general delivery but it was acceptable and, just as important, consistent, which meant once you were used to it it just became words and you could ignore it, and this is a play about the words.

It is a play where there is not a lot of action apart from the odd violent moment and the plot is the slow revealing of Blanche’s past, with her life, and at times, her clothes, stripped away layer by layer. This is all about the acting and the human condition. There is some humour, like Blanche, the lush, professing that she hardly drinks or when she declares: “A shot never does a coke any harm!”. But Williams, especially in his earlier work does not do humour, he does people and relationships, and he does them brilliantly.

Director Debbie Loweth, who pops up at the end as the nurse, has done a fine job to mix the impression of the easy slow pace of life in a sultry hot, New Orleans summer with the theatrical pace needed to keep everything moving along. With a splendid cast the result is a very professional amateur production.

This is one of the great plays of the 20th century by one of America’s greatest playwrights and it would be a crime to let the chance to see it pass by. To 18-03-16

Roger Clarke


Tennessee Williams had lived in the French Quarter in New Orleans and the streetcar of the title had Desire as its destination, rather than its name, Desire Street in the Bywater district. It was replaced by a bus service the year after the play appeared.

The residents association had complained about the noise of the streetcars and their vibration damaging property as well as traffic congestion as the streetcars negotiated bends in the narrow streets.

The following year with legislation to replace the Desire line with buses already passed and being acted upon the play had become a huge success and the residents were now demanding the streetcars should be retained as their removal would hit tourism. The moral seems to be . . . be careful what you wish for.

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