Theatre: Fever pitch

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The Independent Culture
WHEN THE air turns nippingly autumnal, it's enough of a trial to get an audience into a theatre, let alone transport them to sweaty downtown New Orleans, one summer in the Forties. But Dominic Hill's revival of Tennessee Williams's first Pulitzer prizewinner is so sultry in atmosphere, it not only spirits you to a world in which every brick seems to give off heat, it also reaches the fevered emotional temperature at which very unpleasant things start to happen. An impressively assured leap for a young director, the production reminds us of Williams's genius for devising blistering psychological infernos.

It takes a while before Geraldine Alexander's Blanche DuBois finds her feet in Jonathan Fensom's cross-section of her sister Stella's marital abode, a cluster of period furnished rooms lent an air of fragility by the surrounding expanse of stage. At first, the actress's pitch wavers wildly as she exaggerates the idiosyncratic twangs of this former Southern belle, for whom levels of affectation, and shots of liquor, provide the only vestigial index of worth.

It's not until the appearance of Stanley, Stella's hard-as-nails husband, that Alexander seems to gain full possession of the part. As soon as Alex Ferns's lithe bully-boy stalks into the apartment Blanche has escaped to in her hour of need, he gives her a dismissive once-over, and both sides square up for a clash of cultures and a battle for territory. It's a slow dance of mutual antagonism, conducted to the sounds of raucous cackling, bluesy piano tinklings and the roar of passing streetcars.

Through Alexander's grippingly highly-strung performance, we see how being in Stanley's brutish presence brings out the worst in the newcomer. Physically frail, this Blanche has little obvious allure as a siren. It's her neediness, coupled with her steely disdain for his bestiality, that repulses Stanley and fixates him. Hill matches them through a gestural tit-for-tat in which male violence hovers as a continual threat - she smoothes away imaginary creases, he invades personal space and wipes his armpits with his vest; his boorishness becomes as affected as her daintiness.

Caught in the middle are Mitch (Martin Pirongs), Stanley's sensitive poker-playing buddy, and Sarah Tansey's sensual, harried-looking Stella. In one beautifully backlit tableau, we see her slowly descending the iron stairs from her neighbour's house to embrace the kneeling form of the husband who has just assaulted her. It's one shocking moment of many, all achieved by staying faithful to the playwright's vision.

To 6 Nov (01206 573948)