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Gillian Anderson as Blanche DuBois: Louche charm and drink-sodden denial (Johan Persson)

Tennessee Williams marked the post-war transitions of America's South from hierarchies and repressions to the awkward integration of immigrants and confused values of a society in flux. A Streetcar Named Desire at London's Young Vic amplifies the contemporary echoes in a production which brings to life the epic clash of the raucous Kowalski household and the seething repressions of its nemesis, Blanche DuBois.

Gillian Anderson is a bold casting in the lead role: an actress who excelled at exuding neuralgic modernity in her television role in The X-Files, she has since had as many erratic reincarnations as Blanche has had pre-prandial bourbon shots.

In the Young Vic's production, she pays off the risk handsomely, with a combination of louche physical charm, drink-sodden denial and a teetering self-esteem that is as maddening as it is pitiable.

The three-way horror show unfolds from the moment when the dispossessed schoolteacher sways uncertainly into the New Orleans tenement inhabited by her pliant sister Stella and boorish, insecure Stanley. The Australian director Benedict Andrews's production eschews the southern charm poured over so many Streetcar productions — all is open to our gaze, from the sex and violence to the artful voyeurs of the neighbourhood observing the quarrels with a shrug. In Magda Willi's sparse design, the stage is a boxy, rotating block with metal stairways and all the romance of a badly-built social housing estate. 

True, we lose some of the period feeling. The New Orleans apartment is so carelessly basic that when Blanche adds a red paper lampshade it evokes atavistic cries of appreciation from Stella — a moment when we see her a refugee from the same world of disappeared grandeur as her bombastic sister.

The five-star reviews have gone Anderson's way, not least because the role of Blanche requires so much verbal heavy-lifting — she speaks for a solid half of a production lasting well over three hours and at a soliloquy length to test the most fluent Shakespearean. But I was just as impressed with the judicious feeling Vanessa Kirby brings to Stella, played here as a woman who makes a grim life liveable, even if the compromises are ghastly. Besides the terror and the pity, there is, thankfully, comedy. Anderson's arched eyebrow and incredulous response to being asked to partake in household chores have all the southern majesty of Jerry Hall disdaining to empty the bins.

Kowalski (Ben Foster) is as meaty and wagering as the part demands, a muscle-bound idiot-savant who can appall us by striking his pregnant wife while drunk, and then articulate a scorched nobility, responding to the taunt of "Polack" with a rattled dignity: "People from Poland are Poles, not Polacks. What I am is a one hundred per cent American, born and raised in the greatest country on earth."

Without doubt, here is a Streetcar that lingers in the mind, in all its impossibility and unhappiness. It gets a screening across the country (and abroad) via the excellent  National Theatre Live on September 16, so if you can't make it to the Deep South of SE1, do catch it at the cinema.

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