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Maxine Peake in A Streetcar Named Desire – review at the Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester

Maxine Peake in A Streetcar Named Desire at the Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester. Photo: Manuel Harlan Maxine Peake in A Streetcar Named Desire at the Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester. Photo: Manuel Harlan

Maxine Peake has the most eloquent wrists. It’s the little physical details that really make her Blanche DuBois complete: the way she points her toes and crosses her ankles, the way she folds one hand across her back, the poise with which she wields a cigarette. It’s the infinitesimal cracks in her manner, the laugh that’s slightly too shrill, the way her eyes momentarily widen.

An associate artist at the Royal Exchange, Peake’s creative relationship with director Sarah Frankcom is a rich and thrilling one. After working with her on a recital of Shelley’s potent poem The Masque of Anarchy, Frankcom went on to direct her, first in Hamlet, then in Caryl Churchill’s vibrant, word-ripe The Skriker. Now they turn their attention to Tennessee Williams’ masterwork, A Streetcar Named Desire.

Designer Fly Davis has carpeted the Royal Exchange in card table green. The Kowalski apartment consists of two mattresses, a fridge and a bathtub, the space between them marked out with fluorescent strip lights, which flicker to life at key moments. It’s a harsh, cold environment into which Blanche DuBois drifts, prim and pin-curled, a woman out of time, with her little wheeled suitcase, her fox-pieces and her rhinestones. While everyone else wears vests, shorts and bowling shirts, she floats around in tea dresses and delicate blouses, floral prints and ballet pumps, pale, pastel, diaphanous.

Though the costumes are contemporary, Frankcom’s production is not as bold an update as, say, the Secret Theatre version of Streetcar. It retains the setting and the accents, and the lilting delivery of the American South is part of the texture of the piece. What Frankcom does do is have Blanche shadowed by three silent creole figures in black and red, one wearing an elaborate floral headdress and mantilla. They fix their eyes on Blanche, sometimes accusingly, sometimes tenderly, and as she becomes more troubled they are increasingly present on stage, like the figure of Bertha Mason in the Shared Experience Jane Eyre.

Alongside Peake, Ben Batt’s compact, muscled Stanley is Vesuvian, very much the ex-soldier, always on the cusp of an explosion. At times he’s every bit the animal Blanche accuses him of being, a pit bull, a snapper, but he is not without his vulnerabilities, and his hoarse, cracked bellow for Stella is almost pitiable.

Sharon Duncan Brewster’s Stella has a brightness to her. While there’s little sense of the complex power games going on between her and Stanley, as there was when Ruth Wilson played the role at the Donmar Warehouse, she lights up when Stanley comes pawing and calling, she glows.

The production builds slowly. It takes its time. Messes are made, things are spilled, and then carefully cleaned up (at one point someone brings on a vacuum cleaner to do so) but despite all this, the emotional notes of the later scenes don’t land in the way you’d expect. Peake ends up in a prom dress, corsage and wig, dripping wet and desperate. The image feels so blunt when compared with what has gone before, as does her howling when the men in white come for her – it’s too much. But though some of the ideas and imagery (particularly in regards to race) feel underdeveloped, Peake is one of those performers who can fill a stage. She’s completely in command and can convey so much – pain, shame, loss, longing – with the smallest turn of her wrist.

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Though the production loses its way at times, Maxine Peake’s Blanche DuBois is magnetic