Almeida Theatre, London – until 7 April 2018
The dizzying brightness and heat of summer plays as big a part in Tennessee Williams’ plays as the vulnerable, flawed characters that inhabit their pages. And, despite no natural light filtering through the rough-hewn walls of London’s Almeida Theatre, director Rebecca Frecknall’s atmospheric production of his Summer & Smoke hits just the right note in conjuring up the airless claustrophobia of small-town Glorious Hill, Mississippi.
It’s astonishing to think that Summer & Smoke, written in 1947, was considered a bit of a flop among Williams’ overall output. But it had the misfortune to appear just a year after the phenomenal success of the multi award-winning A Streetcar Named Desire. How on earth do you follow that? Everything else would pale in comparison.
Today, appearing independently of the playwright’s canon, it can be seen for what it is, a powerfully and painfully-told, coming-of-age story, of lust, longing and desire, a fight between good and evil and a romantic tragedy all rolled into one.
The stage is largely bare save for nine upright pianos, set in a horseshoe, against the back of the stage. Throughout the performance, the ivories are tinkled and the innards of the instruments used to created harsh, raucous sound effects. It’s a little avant-garde but it works. Stripping the play back to the bones allows the audience to concentrate on the character-led story.
And, in particular, it emphasises the difficult, uneasy and faltering relationship between hypochondriac Miss Alma, the minister’s buttoned-up, prissy, resolutely unattached daughter, and the reckless, devil-may-care boy next door who lays claim to her soul.
Alma is prim and proper. She’s inhibited, lacking confidence and self-esteem, terrified of intimacy and unable to talk frankly. She’s erudite when discussing literature but thoughts and deeds concerning her feelings and desires cause her to hyperventilate and faint.
And you thought attacks of the vapours were confined to Victorian melodrama? Alma positively swoons to order. It’s remarkable.
But Alma’s world is turned upside down when her doctor’s son, John Buchanan, returns home for the summer.
She finds herself yearning for her neighbour, despite him being everything she isn’t. Worse, she is unable to admit her feelings to him.
The more he fixes his gaze on her, and is disarmingly open and direct, the further she retreats. He’s temptation, addiction and sin in one handsome package.
She is a confusion of repressed feelings, a soul in torment, while he openly admits to being soulless.
There is nothing to recommend him. Reluctant trainee doctor John Buchanan would rather watch a cock-fight and fool around with whores than buckle down and follow in his father’s medical footsteps.
John’s arrival causes Alma to panic. When we first meet her she’s whipped up into such a lather that her heart almost stops beating on stage and she’s about to pass out.
But John is dissolute, reckless and seductive, with a Mississippi accent dripping in molasses. How will she resist him and – does she really want to?
“I don’t think I will be able to get through the summer,” gasps Alma. We empathise.
Patsy Ferran and Matthew Needham are outstanding as the couple caught in a maelstrom of mixed emotions.
Ferran gets to the heart of the complex Alma and discovers a soul in torture while Needham’s self-assurance inflicts more pain than pleasure on the young girl. The more assertive he becomes the less she feels in control.
As much as she panics and frets, he coolly sets the town abuzz, playing fast and loose with a string of women.
Both have troubled families. Alma’s mother appears to have dementia (Nancy Crane impressively erratic and volatile) while John’s father is a violent bully.
Confusingly Forbes Masson is cast as both fathers. One minute he’s a pious minister and the next he’s berating his son for being a lecher and waster. You have to have your wits about you.
Summer and Smoke sizzles with repression. Lyrical, scintillating and stormy, it’s a show not to miss – although I understand that the run is already sold out. Surely a West End transfer is on the cards? In the meantime, try for returns.