It was a night to remember – and not just because of Maxine Peake’s scorching performance.

Shortly before curtain up on the Royal Exchange’s production of A Streetcar Named Desire, an apocalyptic storm engulfed Manchester. I don’t mean that fine rain that gets you wettest or the wind that blows your bin halfway down the street. This was proper weather. It forced the cancellation of Manchester City’s Champions League game, left 20,000 properties in darkness and took out the entire tram system. One friend reported being escorted from a Metrolink tunnel by staff with torches.

It explains why there were a few empty seats on press night, and also the late start. For a show more than three hours long (including a short interval), this meant that a number of audience members were compelled to leave early in order to catch the last train. Or, on this occasion, a replacement bus.

01-a-streetcar-named-desire-ret-maxine-peake-blanche-dubois-image-manuel-harlan-3And what a shame to have missed the whole event. This was blistering, seat-of-your-pants, hold-your-breath acting. Admittedly, the cast had some good material to get their teeth into. Tennessee Williams’s classic 1947 play won the Pulitzer Prize, was turned into a iconic film starring the incomparable Marlon Brando and Vivien Leigh and has, over the years, attracted the finest calibre of actors. I first saw it in London back in 1997 with Jessica Lange, Toby Stephens and Imogen Stubbs. At the time I was pretty much stalking Stephens after his RSC portrayal of Coriolanus but that’s another story.

So, it’s a tale oft told, that of a time-worn Southern belle, a once wealthy daughter of a respected family, now with no money and forced to rely on the kindness of her younger sister, herself living in dilapidation with her roughneck husband. Like many of Williams’ female characters, Blanche is imbued with affected gentility, neuroticism and nostalgia for the Deep South. She’s flirtatious, seductive, cunning, pathetic and desperate. It takes a great deal of skill to pull that off, all the while holding the audience’s affection in the lead up to her ultimate tragedy. And not easy to fill the shoes of Leigh and a catalogue of other acting greats.

But Peake has form when it comes to going against the grain. One need only think of her mesmerising, fiery angel in Manchester International Festival’s Masque of Anarchy, and her bold decision to take on the role of Hamlet two years ago, also at the Royal Exchange. You might say that she’s at the peak of her powers. Ahem.

But nothing prepared me for last night’s acting masterclass. My god woman! One moment she is kittenish, purring with contentment while basking in the affections of Youssef Kerkour’s Mitch, the next squaring up to Ben Batt’s Stanley Kowalski, the unpolished working class man she calls “sub-human” and “ape-like”.

Early into the second half, I kept hearing one of the key lyrics from Willy Russell’s Blood Brothers in my head: ‘By the time I was 25 I looked like 42, me husband he walked out on me, a month or two ago, for a girl they say who looks a bit like Marilyn Monroe’. The song has a beautiful melody and encapsulates what I was thinking about Blanche’s faded glamour, not least her resemblance to Monroe with her tousled blonde curls, swaying hips and striking beauty.

Having seen the production now, it’s difficult to marry up the friendly, Bolton-brogued Maxine Peake I interviewed recently with the insecure and broken woman on stage, all Mississippi elongated ‘r’s and pain. The same can be said of Ben Batt, Peake’s co-star. An interview with this Wigan actor is coming soon on Northern Soul and, when I chatted to him, we spent more time discussing the merits of the Wigan kebab than Tennessee Williams. He too puts in a stellar performance. Maxine Peake in A Streetcar Named Desire

Like Peake, Batt has his work cut out. Some people will find it difficult to separate the character of Stanley Kowalski from Marlon Brando. The wife-beater vest is the same, as is the menacing presence, sinister stare and, let’s be honest here, irresistible six pack and bulging biceps (a note to self: next time there’s a bare Ben Batt bum on stage, make sure you’re sat within leering distance).

In many ways, Batt has the more difficult job. His inner city New Orleans accent is subtler and less obvious than the broad dialect of the Deep South – and must have taken some getting right in the rehearsal period. And Stanley is intrinsically unlikeable. I mean, this is a man who beats his wife and, at the end of the play, does the unthinkable.

It is testament to Batt’s skills that the audience wavers in its emotions when he’s on stage. He is unshowy, preferring to unsettle his wife and sister-in-law with half gestures and furtive looks before exploding with rage. I think back to comments by both Batt and Peake in the run-up to this show. Both told me they were daunted by the play and the parts they were taking on; neither seemed entirely sure they could pull it off. They needn’t have worried a jot.

In addition, both are aided by the quality of their fellow performers. Kerkour’s subtle playing of Mitch is a perfect counterbalance to the simmering tensions of Blanche and Stanley, and Sharon Duncan-Brewster is an ideal foil for her fragile sister and blunt instrument of a husband. Ben Batt as Stanley in Maxine Peake in A Streetcar Named Desire

Having said all that, I wonder if Streetcar Named Desire – and its motley cast of characters – is of its time. Does it lend itself to modern interpretation? I want to say yes. I’m anxious to see Blanche as a timeless personality. I am desperate to give this production a five-star review. But the combination of some batty directing decisions and a baffling set makes that impossible.

Seriously, what on earth was going on with the set? I got the symbolism of designer Fly Davis’s green baize floor (as far as I could tell, a multi-purpose actual poker table and a metaphorical floor for the games being played out between characters); I saw how fluorescent strip lights delineated different rooms. I just didn’t get the point of it all. And for a play set in the long, hot Deep South summer, in a cramped apartment, the set felt positively breezy and well proportioned. Where was the sweaty intimacy? The uncomfortable shared space? The sweltering, simmering ‘I’m going to kill you’ atmosphere? It was entirely lacking.

Perhaps most disappointing were a few key moments of direction after climatic scenes when the audience needed, nay demanded, time to digest the extraordinary acting achievements within touching distance. Without wanting to give too much away, I’ll only say that, at crucial times, the director Sarah Frankcom (who is also artistic director of the Exchange) did the superlative cast a serious disservice.

By Helen Nugent, Editor of Northern Soul

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Maxine Peake in A Streetcar Named DesireA Streetcar Named Desire is at Manchester’s Royal Exchange until October 14, 2016. For more information, click here.

To read Northern Soul’s interview with Maxine Peake, click here.