Summer and Smoke is one of Tennessee Williams’ lesser-performed plays (its last major production in London was in 2006 at the Apollo Theatre), but this stunning Almeida Theatre production makes you wonder why. With two huge central roles and an intensely atmospheric feel, it really should not be missed.
Set in the deep south, Alma (Patsy Ferran), a preacher’s daughter of a seriously nervous disposition, has a lot to deal with, from frequent, inhibiting panic attacks to dealing with an ill mother who has “stolen her youth from her”. As her next door neighbour John, a young doctor with whom Alma grew up admiring from a distance, returns for the summer, something sparks between them.
Williams’ text brings out the unexplainable contradictions of love. He’s a doctor, focused on the messy mechanics of the body: it eats, it thinks and it reproduces. And she believes in the soul, something higher, and that there’s more to life. Yet despite their obvious clashes, there is something between them.
From the moment Ferran takes centre stage, building up one of Alma’s all-encompassing panic attacks, gulping and gasping hysterically into a microphone, you know she is going to deliver something special. From Alma’s shy, timid demeanour, to outbursts or maniacal laughter, her convincing performance is reason alone to see this production. Her chemistry with Matthew Needham as John is necessarily electrifying throughout.
Rebecca Frecknall’s production promises musicality, the stage is littered with nine upright pianos and metronomes which the characters all sit at and build a cacophony of sounds. They play them, bang them, pluck at the strings and use bows to create bustling soundscapes. But the moments they work best are when Anjana Vasan performs a strong “Feeling Good”-type number, and Forbes Masson’s haunting choral song. Think Girl from the North Country, but grittier (and better).
The text requires fluid direction, with scenes flowing into one another and only subtle changes in the lighting signifying they we’ve moved on. It’s used to great effect here, and Lee Curran’s lighting is delicate and dramatic. It fills Tom Scutt’s dust-filled, stripped back designs with texture.
Ferran, though, is the stand-out of the entire production. Her memorable performance is one that demonstrates she is going from strength to strength on stage and is showing no sign of slowing down.
Photo courtesy Marc Brenner