Summer and Smoke at the Almeida Theatre review ****

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Summer and Smoke

Almeida Theatre, 14th March 2018

I don’t always find it easy to get into the “Tennessee Williams zone”. My head takes a little bit of time to adjust to all that dreamy lyricism and I find it easier to stomach if there is something to cling on to, a social structure lurking in the background, the interaction of a few characters such that the usual TW human foibles are spread around a bit, a production that is not overly “directorial”.

The Almeida production of Summer and Smoke didn’t offer too much of what I look for, so I can’t say I was quite as bowled over as some of the proper critics who reckon this production was enough to set S&S, written in 1948, alongside the classic TW’s such as A Streetcar Named Desire which premiered the year before. It is very, very good though and should be seen, if you are sharp enough to snaffle some of the Rush tickets that Almeida offers up for sold-out stuff like this, or if it finds its way into the West End as it might. It is also yet another reminder, if this were needed, for all you casual theatre-goers out there. that it is always worth taking a punt on Almeida productions for fear you end up shelving out twice as much when they transfer, as so many have done under Rupert Goold’s tenure. Romola Garai has already been announced in the lead role of Ella Hickson’s new play The Writer, and you can bet your bottom dollar that they will line up another outstanding female actor to take on the challenge in Sophie Treadwell’s Expressionist classic Machinal. Invest in both I say.

In S&S Patsy Ferran has, deservedly, attracted all the plaudits for her performance as the uneasy and multiloquent Alma Winemuller, alongside the equally impressive Matthew Needham as tall, dark, handsome, and troubled, boy-next-door John Buchanan. I wasn’t entirely persuaded by My Mum’s A Twat, Ms Ferran’s last outing, but there is no denying her comic credentials. This though is her first major opportunity to showcase her “serious” acting credentials and she grabs it wth both hands. Mesmerising. Yet, if you ask me, the real star to emerge here is director Rebecca Frecknall.

Ms Frecknall has directed this very play before at the Southwark Playhouse which went down well I gather, and has already rung up a string of awards recognising her precocious talent. She clearly has a deep understanding of the text and the battle between body and soul, which lies at the heart of the play. The way she has marshalled the contributions of designer Tom Scutt, the sparse set and simple costumes backed by a ring of 9 upright pianos, the lighting of Lee Curran, the sound of Carolyn Downing and, especially, composer Angus MacRae, is what turns this into a great production, despite my minor misgivings about the play itself.

Across two acts and thirteen scenes the play explores the ultimately unrequited relationship between the nervous, conventional pastor’s daughter Alma and the maverick John Jr, who comes home to become, like his father, the town’s doctor. It is set in the first decade or so of the C20 in the backwoods of Mississippi. A study of doomed desire, we see Alma shift from sexual repression to, eventually, abandonment, as John simultaneously grows out of his wild, drunken, early years into something approaching conformity, though his hasty marriage to Rosa, daughter of a Mexican immigrant who runs a casino, isn’t going to end well. There are a few other plot twists and turns, one decidedly dramatic if predictable, but the vast majority of the “action” centres on the will they, won’t they couple.

Of course out of this TW fashions something with limitless emotional depth and the apparent linear arc of the story dissolves into something more timeless and circular. Rebecca Frecknall seizes on this and, rightly. doesn’t let go. She has a keen eye for the best of contemporary theatre direction but offers her own, clear voice. Ms Ferran and Almeida regular Mr Needham are sympathetic to this interpretation, and importantly, to each other, and are aided by some heavyweight supporting performances from the likes of Forbes Masson (who plays both fathers – clever eh) and Nancy Crane and another remarkable turn from Anjana Vasan (who was so very good in the Young Vic’s Life of Galileo – Life of Galileo at the Young Vic review ****), as all the other young women in the story (clever again eh).

There were, I admit, a few moments where the intoxicating combination of TW’s poetry, the warm lighting and the minimalist piano score, felt a little too adagio, but, like I said in the open, this is probably more a reflection of my limited attention span that the artfulness of play and production. If you have ever fallen in love with the wrong, or indeed, the right person, and ultimately bollocksed it up, then you are going to recognise Alma and John, even if their world should seem a long way from ours. And, of course, whatever melodramatic nonsense was playing through the theatre of your mind during your great affair/s, it was going to look anaemic in comparison to the intensity of TW’s vision.

If this is what Patsy Ferran can root out of a character like Alma then heavens knows what we have to look forward to in years to come. Nora, Hedda, Martha, Queen Margaret, Lady Macbeth or a host of, I am sure, stunning parts to be written by the crop of outstanding female playwrights this country is fortunate to have right now. I really cannot wait to see what Rebecca Frecknall turns her hand and eye to next. Presumably she will have another crack at the Almeida. On this showing that nice Mr Icke has some competition.

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