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FringeReview UK 2018

Summer and Smoke

Almeida Theatre

Genre: Drama, Mainstream Theatre, Theatre

Venue: Almeida Theatre, Islington


Low Down

Rebecca Frecknall directs this Almeida revival of Summer and Smoke. Tom Scutt and composer Angus MacRae have invoked a minimalist 1970s with multiple pianos – nine here – to evoke a 1900s world in yellow ochres and burnt siennas constantly played over in Lee Curran’s light. Carolyn Dowling’s sound amplifies this; it’s as if we’re deep inside a piano-lid’s world. Till April 7th.


There’s a catastrophe theory in Tennessee Williams’ 1948 Summer and Smoke, a surprisingly rarely-revived early play. It’s the flip-over between the roles of preacher’s daughter Alma (she’s nervously unsure if we get that ‘Alma’ means ‘soul’) and doctor’s lecherous, wastrel son John. Except that from the first you realise he’s his father’s son as he takes Alma’s pulse: an essentially fine doctor. The second time he takes it, everything’s changed.


Rebecca Frecknall on this showing emerges as a director sensing an unhesitating pulse for what’s essential in Williams’ expressionist world. She strips realism away, placing the wonderful Patsy Ferran literally dead-centre. Doing so she confirms Ferran and this work’s qualities; as well as shifting it with a startling design. Out goes the literal symbolism: John’s anatomy chart (body) and Alma’s stone angel and fountain; they’re gestured to and that’s all we need.


Tom Scutt and composer Angus MacRae have invoked Steve Reich’s minimalist 1970s with multiple pianos – nine here – to evoke a 1900s world in yellow ochres and burnt siennas constantly played over in Lee Curran’s light – literally as in startling moments the insides of pianos light up as if they’re the souls. And at one moment the stage and brief protagonist are irradiated with a lightning of immortality. Ranged in a semicircle around the edges of a bare-boarded stage actors tread with bare feet, actors and pianos create sound clouds, strike chords and sudden shafts of thunder, thrummed, zipped and twanged. Carolyn Dowling’s sound amplifies this; it’s as if we’re deep inside a piano-lid’s world. Williams would hardly have objected, with his notion of plastic or sculptural modelling in drama, eschewing realism.


After a brief prelude where it’s clear Alma is suffocating physically and almost can’t sing, we’re offered a snapshot of her childhood regard for the taunting young John. Ferran conveys this uniquely with a microphone not seen again. It’s an emblematic figure here melded seamlessly into adulthood.


Ferran’s unnerving laughter is – she’s told – mild hysteria. Williams diagnoses in part repressed sexual tension. Ferran shows it as literally more soulful, about love. In a gamut of fragility through learned robustness, even reckless resolution that might destroy her, Ferran’s evocation of Alma’s intensity and smothered passion is absorbing, shudderingly present. She expresses it to a self-improving group of readers including one unfortunate Vernon with a Vogon captain-like wad of poetic drama continuously kicked into the long grass. Alma’s choice is Blake’s ‘Love’s Secret’ where telling your love repels the lover, but someone else can ‘take her with a sigh’. Alma tries both.


Matthew Needham’s sympathetically rebellious John convinces you that Alma’s right to invest hope in him. He manages awkward sympathy and pent-up irritation equally, and playing off Ferran registers rage, irritation, teasing and tenderness on a believable, personable scale.


The doubling of actors underscores the essential motivic nature of Williams’ plays. Both fathers – Reverend Winemiller and Dr Buchannan – are played by Forbes Masson with a mix of avuncularity snapped to rage, and on occasion sheer bafflement (Winemiller landed with looking after his distracted wife for once after he’s retired). Nancy Crane’s impressively distrait, shrewd, occasionally malicious Mrs Winemiller diversifies distractions with puzzles, only pacified by pints of ice-cream. Crane balances this with malicious busybody Mrs Bassett. Williams usually manages to intimate mental distress in his early period, and plays with social perceptions of how Alma might be affected. She’s learned though. Tok Stephen and Seb Carrington amplify versions of young male innocence.


More dangerously, Anjana Vasan portrays four sensually direct young women who approach John, though whilst those who are still schoolgirls play amorously off his startled sense of propriety (at least till they grow up), Rosa in particular holds no such bar and John embarks on an affair her casino-owning father Gonzales finds useful later on – Eric MacLennan taking this as well as the luckless contrast, Vernon, as minor case studies in wrong calls.


Vasan’s vigour serves as a kind of oblique object lesson for Alma in various incarnations of shamelessly direct, healthy harbingers of appetite and a refusal to reflect on anything but their objects. It’s of course refreshing too in such a stifling town. Mrs Basset loses no time in conveying various sightings of Vasan’s Rosa to Alma whose reaction at one of their intellectual discussions is predictable in an explosion of chairs, the only other props.


The outfall of entanglements – John’s sense he’s not worthy of Alma especially when he takes her to the casino – hits a crisis point with sudden tragedy. How this affects both main protagonists can come across as schematic. But Alma’s journey at least is wholly convincing. Her harrowing confession is riveting; heart-rending yet liberating. ‘The girl who said ‘no’ – se doesn’t exist any more, she died last summer – suffocated in smoke from something on fire inside her.’


Williams finds happier resolutions difficult, though there are a few convincing ones like the late-completed A Lovely Sunday for Creve-Coeur of 1978, revived with enormous success at The Print Room in 2016. But that’s a comedy. Then There’s A Cat on a Hot Tin Roof from 1955 and more uneasily The Night of the Iguana of 1961.


Sometimes it feels as if Williams’ characters can’t breathe without their intrinsically skew-sided unhappiness as oxygen, or indeed a nitrogen of the soul. Alma starts by not being able to breathe at all, and her ‘attacks’ require pills to help her do so. Ferran’s Alma though takes on a life that transcends this and makes one wonder again at Williams’ choices, and the residual wisdom Alma now exhales. Frecknall’s certainly breathed air from another planet into the play.