Duke of York's Theatre | 10 November 2018 - 19 January 2019
Reviewed at the Almeida Theatre 24 Feb - 07 April 2018
Writer: Tennessee Williams
Director: Rebecca Frecknall
Cast: Alma - Patsy Ferran; John Jr - Matthew Needham; Rosa - Anjana Vasan
Photographs: Marc Brenner
A challenging title in the dead of a London winter but beware, Summer & Smoke is anything but warm and fuzzy. Tennessee Williams revels in the torture of strict morality versus easy morals (written in the 1940s but set twenty years earlier). In Summer and Smoke, this is explored in minute detail between Alma the conscientious daughter of a minister and John Jr the unleashed boy-next-door. Alma is constrained by her own high standards whilst the free-spirited John is compromised by his affair with Rosa the daughter of a Mexican thug. They are drawn to each other but fight their corners. Alma defends the soul and John rallies for the senses. When the tables turn, and each realises the other’s predicament, it is all too late.
Unlike recent productions at the Almeida where the sets have been a technical feat, this time the backdrop is a static rough brick-wall before which half a dozen battered pianos and their players are positioned in a semicircle. The cast take turns to play discordantly and clamber the frames. The playing evokes suspense and emphasises emotions (hysteria, grief, dread and so on). On a musical note – a special commendation for Forbes Massons’ beautiful choir voice which fills the theatre during one chilling scene. However, except for highlighting the depressing situation for Alma and John, the set doesn’t entirely make sense until the characters meet at the disreputable casino owned by Rosa’s gun slinging father where the blues are played. Furthermore, the stifling heat of the deep south (which surely underlies Alma’s sexual frustration?) is only signified in one scene when the characters wave fans.
“Ferran doesn’t convey the bursting sexuality that speaks for Tennessee Williams’ censored homosexuality, but she gives a forceful performance. .”
The young leads are outstanding although not easily recognisable (that must surely change) or stereotypical Tennessee Williams’ actors (don’t expect contemporary equivalents of Marlon Brando and Vivien Leigh in A Streetcar Named Desire). Ferran doesn’t convey the bursting sexuality that speaks for Tennessee Williams’ censored homosexuality, but she gives a forceful performance. This is an uncompromising production directed by Rebecca Frecknall. You may leave the theatre cherishing a ray of hope or nursing the wounds of despair.