Summer and Smoke

Tennessee Williams
Nottingham Playhouse
(2006)

Rosamund Pike in Summer and Smoke

Tennessee Williams' reputation as one of the 20th century's greatest playwrights is maintained thanks to revivals of masterpieces including A Streetcar Named Desire, The Glass Menagerie and Cat On A Hot Tin Roof.

Nottingham Playhouse has been an enthusiastic promoter of his work. Last year the theatre staged the original version of Cat On A Hot Tin Roof - the first time it had been seen in this country. Richard Baron's powerful production is currently on tour.

Nottingham Playhouse has now turned to Williams' lesser-known work Summer and Smoke. Strangely, although the film version was nominated for four Academy Awards, the play hasn't been seen in the West End. That will be put right when Summer and Smoke transfers to the Apollo on Shaftesbury Avenue later this month.

Previous offerings from this theatre have subsequently travelled south along the M1 - but none is more deserving than this.

Summer and Smoke is set in 1916 in America's deep south. It's the tale of repressed Alma Winemiller, the daughter of a vicar who has adored doctor's son John for a long time. Her love isn't returned because he's not ready to conform to the life his father has in store for him and is looking for the kind of excitement that can only be transient.

Rarely if ever has Williams written two such complex, profound characters as Alma and John. The playwright explores their relationship to such an extent that the rest of the cast have to be content with minor supporting roles.

Rosamund Pike is astounding, giving a multi-layered performance as Alma. She portrays to perfection Alma's innocent sexuality; her exasperation with her mildly insane mother; her heartache when John rejects her on two separate occasions; and her totally unexpected metamorphosis in the final scene.

Opposite her is Chris Carmack, equally impressive as John. He rebels against his father and prefers a wild rather than a boring existence. He forms a relationship based on lust rather than love with a girl of loose morals and at one point proclaims, "Has anybody ever slipped downhill as fast as I have this summer?"

Rather than work, he prefers the life of a playboy living on the girl's father's money - something that in the past would have disgusted him.

The sexual tension between Pike and Carmack is almost tangible. It leaves a tingling sensation - but like pins and needles, you know it won't last very long because each wants something different from the relationship.

Despite being in the shadow of the main characters, the supporting cast almost without exception give commendable performances, especially Angela Down. She is funny yet tragic as Mrs Winemiller, requiring constant care from her daughter yet still with enough faculties to know what's right for Alma.

Adrian Noble directs with verve and style, presenting a classy production that will make other practitioners wonder why they've not tackled Summer and Smoke themselves.

A couple of scenes in the first act are wordy and drawn out, calling for intense concentration as the action slows almost to a halt. But these are far outweighed by the powerful writing in the remainder of the piece, especially when Alma and John are on stage together.

On the whole Summer and Smoke is richly satisfying and on the evidence of this production as good as any of Williams' better-known classics.

"Summer and Smoke" runs until Saturday, October 7th and transfers to the Apollo Theatre from Thursday, October 12th

Philip Fisher reviewed the West End transfer at the Apollo Theatre

Reviewer: Steve Orme