By Hattie Brewis
There’s no smoke without fire – and Rebecca Frecknall’s production of Summer and Smoke does burn fiercely.
It is always a gamble to stage lesser known works by literary idols, largely because critics will always say there’s a reason why they’re lesser known.
So when Frecknall, associate director of Islington’s Almeida theatre, decided to revive Tennessee Williams’ overlooked 1945 play, things could easily have gone up in flames.
Clearly, they did not. And after a sell-out stint at the Almeida earlier this year, Summer and Smoke has hit the West End with a bang.
Set at the turn of the Century in a Mississippi town by the name of Glorious Hill, Summer and Smoke is an exploration of the painful tensions that make us human. From head vs. heart to body vs. soul, Williams and, by proxy, Frecknall, invite us to look inside ourselves and ask which side we should take.
Patsy Ferran is shattering as Alma Winemiller, our waif-like female protagonist. The dutiful daughter of a church minister, Alma is unable to supress the “affliction of love” she suffers for her young doctor neighbour, John Buchanan, leaving her on the constant brink of nervous collapse.
Ferran delivers Alma’s fits of hysteria with exhausting credibility, deftly balancing her nerve-wracked turmoil with the pithy strength of her bookish eloquence.
Matthew Needham makes a worthy foil of the equally turbulent John Buchanan. Motherless and with a father who picks at his worth, the young man gradually accepts his fate, but not without testing it first through drink, dice and women.
In a play of torn identities, we are urged to read Alma, whose name is the Spanish for ‘soul’, as the spiritual, transcendental side of the human condition, while the tall and magnetic John is the embodiment of the carnal. But, as Williams shows us, the two cannot exist in isolation.
Alma wills the young doctor to fill the “enormous silences” in her life, while he challenges her to stop hiding behind a veil of intangibility: “I am more afraid of your soul than you’re afraid of my body,” Needham says with an earnest heavy-heartedness.
But the power of Frecknall’s production extends beyond the strengths of its two leads.
Nancy Crane is striking as Alma’s unwell and uninhibited mother with a glutton’s lust for ice cream – “not vanilla!” she shrieks – while Forbes Masson plays the interchangeable patriarchs (both Alma and John’s fathers respectfully) with gruff poise. Anjana Vasan is mesmerising as the socially shunned Nellie and Rosa Gonsalez, and Tok Stephen injects light relief as Alma’s photograph-wielding suitor Roger.
But the beating heart of Frecknall’s production is the mis-en-scene itself, expertly conceived by Tom Scutt, Lee Curran and Angus McRae.
A perfectly symmetrical semi-circle of pianos line the sand-strewn stage, each of which is played by a member of the cast. Sometimes all seven are played in unison, sometimes not. Sometimes they are played in classical harmony, sometimes in hair-raising discordance.
Most significantly, all parts of the pianos are used – from the keys being pounded to the strings being plucked. No part of the instrument goes untouched – it is dissected and played to its fullest potential.
And this sums up Summer and Smoke. It is a play of extremes, which takes seemingly ordinary vessels and reveals them in all their complexity. It dares and defies and pulls and probes and it does not relent.
10 November – 19 January 2019
Monday – Sat: 7.30pm (Standard: £10 – £95 + booking fee)
Wed and Sat Matinees: 2.30pm
Running Time: 160mins (with interval)
Venue: Duke of York’s Theatre, St Martin’s Lane, WC2N 4BG