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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Summer And Smoke
Almeida Theatre  Spring 2018

One of Tennessee Williams's most quietly poetic and rueful romances is given an inventive new presentation that may startle those familiar with the play but that offers fresh illumination of its characters and emotions. 

Summer And Smoke is built on a great cosmic joke, as two people who are too different to fall in love successfully do affect each other so much that they switch positions, ending up just as far apart as they began. 

In the American South (where else?), repressed and spiritual preacher's daughter Alma (Patsy Ferran) is drawn to wild-oats-sowing doctor's son John (Matthew Needham). 

But his immersion in worldly pleasures and her insistence on spiritual connection – symbolised by Williams with the dominant stage images of a medical chart of the human body and a statue of an angel – create too large a gap between them. 

When they meet again after a separation, his arguments have won her over to acknowledging her sexuality while he now yearns for the more idealised love she preached, and they part as unable to connect as they were before. 

Rebecca Freeknall's direction and Tom Scott's design begin their re-invention of the play by eliminating the two stage symbols I mentioned earlier, referring to the angel and the anatomical chart without letting us see them. 

Instead, the generally bare stage is lined by nine upright pianos, played in various combinations by 'offstage' cast members to provide a musical score, sound effects, and the discordant movie-music effect reflecting a character's hysteria or mental anguish. 

The result is to internalise the play even further than Williams intended, guiding us to experience it largely through Alma's emotional responses. 

Typically of Williams, whose sympathies and talents generally bring his female characters to greater life than his men, Alma is the more fully developed and understood character. And actress and director make choices that illuminate her in new ways.

In place of the expected neurasthenic Southern spinster-in-waiting, Patsy Ferran gives us a more energised, urban, tic-driven image of neurosis. (Do the names of actresses Sandy Dennis, Amanda Plummer and Zohra Lampert suggest a particular style of acting? If not, picture a living-on-nerves'-ends character more expected in a Woody Allen movie than a Williams play.) 

Ferran's performance is a striking one and, once you get past the surprise, a believable one (Why should every troubled Southern woman act like she's auditioning for the role of Blanche DuBois?). 

And Ferran brings a bright-eyed intelligence to the character that also individualises her and makes us follow her through her theoretical and emotional reversal with understanding and sympathy. 

Typically also with Williams, the key male role is somewhat less fully drawn, and actor Matthew Needham is unable to do very much more with John than invest him with a solidity and good will that forestall any sense of villainy. (A hard-working supporting cast double and redouble roles in a way that keeps any of them from really registering.) 

And also typical of Williams, there are scenes and speeches only this greatest poet of the American theatre could have written, leaving you on a contact high from the beauty of the language and intensity of the emotions – including the extended first attempt of Alma and John to reach out to each other while voicing their commitment to their incompatible positions, a scene of such beauty and pain you have to remind yourself to breathe.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - Summer And Smoke - Almeida Theatre 2018  
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