Summer and Smoke (Almeida Theatre)

Posted: March 13, 2018 in Theatre

Writer: Tennessee Williams      Director: Rebecca Frecknall


Tennessee Williams is known as one of the great playwrights of the 20th Century primarily because of half a dozen or so major works that are performed regularly in London and elsewhere, but he also wrote a lot of other stuff that tends to get neglected, often for good reasons. The exhumation of this 1948 Broadway flop always seemed likely to be interesting, but few could have anticipated anything quite like what we see here. Rebecca Frecknall’s smouldering, sensual production unveils in its full glory a poetic masterpiece fit to stand alongside the writer’s greatest plays and, in Alma Winemiller, we find a delicate, bruised and proud female character who is as complex and intriguing as Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Names Desire.

We first see Alma as a young girl with a crush on John, the boy in the house next door. They live in the small town of Glorious Hill, Mississippi, she the daughter of a minister, he the son of a doctor. As the years pass, their fascination with each other turns into obsession and then into a form of love that is fully reciprocated but never consummated. “I am as much afraid of your soul as you are afraid of my body” John tells Alma. He has become a gambler, heavy drinker and womaniser and, as he inherits his father’s medical practice, he longs to contain his wild streak and assume Alma’s purity and dignity, while she longs to throw off the shackles of a strict church upbringing and release the doppelgänger, her opposite self, that is smoking inside her.

I have vague memories of the so-so 1961 film version of this play, with Geraldine Page and Laurence Harvey in the lead roles, and this recollection highlights the first of many inspired moves by director Rebecca Frecknall – the casting of two much younger-looking actors. This brings to the fore a sense of Alma and John not being able to escape the people who they were when young, thereby reinforcing all Williams’ themes. Patsy Ferran is truly phenomenal as Alma, holding the stage for almost the entire 150 minutes, mesmerising us and breaking our hearts. Matthew Needham matches her as John, looking like an overgrown schoolboy and making us understand and care for what could have been such an unsympathetic character. If anyone is looking for a dehfinition of on-stage chemistry, it is here.

There are quirks in Frecknall’s production. The significance of the entire cast being barefoot or of nine upright pianos lined up in a crescent at the back of the stage remain a mystery, but such details matter little when they contribute to evoking the combustible, stifling atmosphere of America’s Deep South so perfectly. Tom Scutt’s set design, exposing the theatre’s brick rear wall, Lee Curran’s lighting and Angus MacRae’s music all make big contributions. Finding fault, actors doubling up in important roles is overdone. Alma’s and John’s fathers are both Forbes Masson, Alma’s mother and a townswoman are both Nancy Crane and all John’s girlfriends are Anjana Vasan. We want to concentrate on this wonderful play without having to figure out which characters are on stage at the beginning of every scene. That said, great theatre productions can always transcend their flaws and this is such a production.

Performance date 6 March 2018

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