Summer and Smoke

Tennessee Williams
Almeida Theatre

Matthew Needham (John Buchanan and Patsy Ferran (Alma) Credit: Marc Brenner
Matthew Needham (John Buchanan and Patsy Ferran (Alma) Credit: Marc Brenner
Matthew Needham (John Buchanan and Patsy Ferran (Alma) Credit: Marc Brenner

Director Rebecca Frecknall has chosen to present this new interpretation of Summer and Smoke in a stripped-down fashion that can, at times, show up the weaknesses in a play from 1948 that is not one of the writer’s best, although Adrian Noble created a worthwhile West End production in 2006 with Rosamund Pike in the lead.

While the central characters are recognisably those of Tennessee Williams, the situations in which they find themselves become disjointed in an evening of just over 2½ hours during which the nature of intimacy but also ridicule is somewhat crudely explored.

The stage is set up with no fewer than nine pianos in a semi-circle facing away from the audience. These are used to play symbolically discordant, minimalist music composed by Angus MacRae, although all are never employed at the same time and for the most part only one person is actually playing.

When they are not at the pianos or speaking, the barefoot actors stay out of the limelight, only making brief appearances in an almost circular, dusty space perhaps intended as a parallel to the cockfighting pit at the local casino, which causes discord between the central characters.

The play revolves around nervous young Alma Winemiller, brilliantly portrayed by one of the best young actors around, Patsy Ferran. From a rather sweet opening, it is clear that the preacher’s daughter is deeply in love with her handsome next-door neighbour John Buchanan, played by Matthew Needham.

The doctor’s son seems willing to reciprocate but the couple’s outlooks, interests and circles soon diverge. While Alma (a word meaning soul in Spanish as she helpfully points out) is largely a loner with intellectual interests and a religious girl’s natural reticence, John is wild. He drives too fast, gambles and drinks to excess and has an eye for women even faster than his car.

Somehow, repeated glimpses of John’s shortcomings do little to dissuade Alma from her love. In particular, Anjana Vasan, who reveals a lovely singing voice in an unexpected torch song, has great fun playing a couple of young floozies flaunting their prior claims to the aspiring young doctor’s body.

Rather than creating a coherent stage play from the material, this production comprises a series of brief scenes in empty spaces that never come together to present the community of the ironically named Glorious Hill. This means that, while viewers have an opportunity to get into the mind of the disappointed Alma and watch her masochistic attempts to avoid humiliation, John is not quite as fully developed, while none of the supporting characters are anything more than briefly sketched caricatures.

This does not prevent Nancy Crane from depicting a couple of nightmarishly malign and gossipy older women, one Alma’s mad mother, but, despite Patsy Ferran’s sensitive performance, it may will leave many visitors feeling that something significant is missing from the work that they witness on stage.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher