Lloyd Evans

World class

A Streetcar Named Desire<br /> Donmar Too Close to the Sun<br /> Comedy Kissed by Brel<br /> Jermyn Street

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A Streetcar Named Desire

Donmar

Too Close to the Sun

Comedy

Kissed by Brel

Jermyn Street

Streetcar opens with a strange spectacle. Christopher Oram’s lovely — too lovely — design has the upper circle decked out in peeling ironwork which soars across the boards and modulates into a chic spiral staircase overlooking the Kowalski’s open-plan apartment. This Manhattan-loft gesture exposes the impossibility of making the Donmar’s airy spaces look like a cramped one-bedroom flat in the wife-beating district of New Orleans. The grime, the physical claustrophobia are missing from Rob Ashford’s production but these are the only failings in this fabulous, horrible, thrilling, galling, hair-pricklingly uncomfortable show.

As Stanley, Elliot Cowan emphasises the ape, the animal, the hyena let loose at Crufts, and he captures Stanley’s pent-up rage with horrifying and brutal clarity. Blanche, played by the quiet film star Rachel Weisz, is simply sensational. She inhabits the crumbling southern belle’s neurotic frailty and snobbish hypersensitivity without effort — although in truth these are not difficult registers for an actress to reach — but she adds unexpected qualities. She makes the ditzy poetess distinctly likeable, adorable even. Rare to find oneself loving a character who haunts the mind as someone with all the romantic allure of an exploding bookcase. There are flashes of gruesome comedy too, and in the final act she acquires an indomitable courage, a heroism which surrenders itself only at the very last note, on the final beat of her humming-bird wings. This show is on a par with Arcadia and Jerusalem, the other world-class productions London boasts this summer, and it’s perfectly timed to bring in hordes of visiting Americans.

No doubt that was the plan behind the new Hemingway musical, which focuses, rather weirdly, on the randy old fraud’s suicide. We’re in his Ohio retirement pad and we watch as the greybeard has-been plods about the house sneaking tipples from hidden hooch bottles and negotiating the competing demands of his umpteenth wife and his fawning new secretary, who secretly fancies him. His childhood pal Rex turns up and tries to sell him the idea of a documentary based on his life. But Papa won’t do the doc and his womenfolk are equally unimpressed with Rex’s charm, so the four characters thrash through the consequences of the plot until Hemingway picks up his shotgun and, well, you know.

The show is billed as a musical but the script is full of straight dialogue. It feels like Crimewatch with a few added melodies, some of which are dispensed with in barely 20 seconds. It takes a brave impresario, with a reckless chequebook, to stage a musical that lacks virtually everything that makes a musical a musical. Hummable ditties, sequined costumes, song-and-dance routines, corny wisecracks, boo-hiss baddies, a compelling romance and an escapist plot. Well, the escapist plot is still there of course. Towards the end, boozy old Ernest bites down on a shotgun and, well, you know. But this exit-route fantasy doesn’t quite have the optimistic uplift one looks for. In fact it’s done with too much despairing detail. Precise instructions are given, as if the show were a Dignitas advert, about exactly how to point the twin barrels of a hunting rifle into one’s mouth before, well, you know. Let’s hope the producers don’t keep shotguns at home. 

Punters might be better off at Kissed by Brel, a fabulous medley of songs by the author of the classic ‘Seasons in the Sun’. In the shady depths of Jermyn Street, a black-box theatre with five ranks of plush crimson seating rescued from an old cinema, Claire Watling gives a svelte and sexy rendition of the maestro’s classics. Unassuming but spectacular.