THEATRE With David Benedict

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A Streetcar Named Desire, Haymarket Theatre Royal, London SW1 (0171-930 8800)

The Glass Menagerie, Theatre Clwyd, Mold (01352 755114)

One critic who should know better declared that Sam Mendes's revival of The Glass Menagerie revealed the play as a masterpiece. And there I was thinking it was a masterpiece all along.

Not the masterpiece, though. Tennessee Williams wrote another indisputably great play, A Streetcar Named Desire. Mind you, watching the current revival, you'd never guess.

It sounds stupid, but it feels as if all Peter Hall has done is direct the lines. Hall's reputation rests largely on his considerable ability to mine and define text, but Williams's work is as much about atmosphere as it is about words, and here it's suspiciously tepid.

The play is about heat in every sense, but despite following stage directions about drinking copious amounts to cool down, everyone looks as if they're merely quenching their thirst on a pleasant autumn afternoon. They don't move as if their clothes cling to their bodies, and there's no discernible difference between the way they move indoors or outdoors. That's partly due to the design, whose open wall banishes any sense of claustrophobia. The lighting designer uses a mostly blue cyclorama, creating a bizarrely cool effect.

The hottest thing the night I saw it was Eric Cantona sitting in the row in front. Poor Toby Stephens didn't stand a chance in comparison. He came on, removed his shirt - neatly sprayed with sweat - to reveal a suitably well-built, but suspiciously dry-looking, chest, and proceeded to flex his pecs. Why? It's a horribly self-conscious action from a character who everyone tells us is pure animal.

When Blanche (Jessica Lange) nearly ravishes the delivery boy, the same problem occurs. He should be gorgeous. With an ordinary looking actor, it makes Blanche look absurd. If, as a friend of mine suggested, Peter Hall is no good at casting men, perhaps he should find a woman or a gay man to lend an eye at castings. For these plays, it's not just a question of acting talent.

Casting Williams's hunks in this country is immensely difficult. Too many British actors are middle-class, a ruinous qualification. Upping your class/status is easy for an actor. Losing it and playing down is extremely hard. Theatr Clwyd's new production of The Glass Menagerie opens on Friday. Perhaps they will fare better.

EYE ON THE NEW

Lucky Exeter theatregoers get the first look at Mike Alfreds' latest Method and Madness production. This marvellous company returns on Thursday with Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale. Book now.

Northcott Theatre, Exeter (01392 54853)

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