Streetcar to Tennesse, Young Vic Studio, London

The road to nowhere
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The Independent Culture

Before we hear a word of these early plays, it's clear, from Pamela McBain's lovely set, a kind of enchanted attic, that Tennessee Williams's world was richly furnished from the beginning. In one corner is a mouldy Victorian brass bed, in another the skeleton of a dressing table holding silver-backed brushes, kewpie dolls, and a Japanese-lacquer box. Underneath a cot lie a stopped clock and a discarded gardenia.

Williams wrote the first of these five short plays, and the best known, This Property is Condemned, when he was 28. A young girl in tennis shoes and a mud-spattered evening gown sees if she can walk atop a narrow wall between the water tank and the telephone pole. She falls into the arms of a boy with a kite who is waiting for the wind to rise and tells him she has lost not only her parents but her older sister.

The gauzy blue dress was hers, and, she says: "I also inherited all my sister's beaus. I go steady with men in responsible jobs." The girl was recognised as sickly in school ("The principal said there was something wrong with my whole atmosphere"), and now, she says, keeps no company apart from her beaus. The boy says he's heard that she danced for one of his friends without any clothes on.

As you can see, If Williams's metaphors were cream, they'd be thick enough to stand a spoon in. But the sex-drenched poetry, the self-aggrandising helplessness keep well away from self-parody ­ Williams was one tough mother of a butterfly, and in four of these five taut one-actors, lyricism, though ample, submits to pace and structure. The last, Hello From Bertha, doesn't feel right, but not because of an excess of romance.

A near-monologue by an angry, demented whore, it is too grimly, heavily realistic. I kept wanting it to be a short story, with the harshness of the material softened by physical description and distanced by paraphrase. Timothy Sheader's production gracefully overlaps the plays, and has plenty of Williams's seductive, unwholesome atmosphere. But, while John Marquez is a fine embodiment of Williams's slow, virile men ­ one a bewildered brute, one a shackled dreamer ­ the actresses do not have the crushed-petal sweetness of his female characters.

Anne Bedi, in Property, pounds so hard on her Southern accent that she is mostly unintelligible, and sings her wistful song as if auditioning to understudy Helen Reddy. As the nervous wife of the two characters played by Marquez, Lise Stevenson is desperate enough, but conveys no sense of being déclassée ­ a quality as important in Williams as fragility. And June Watson's tough, loudmouthed Bertha is a bizarre interpretation of a character who has been earning her keep in a whorehouse ­ unless her speciality was chastisement.

To 30 June (020-7928 6363)

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