BWW Review: SUMMER AND SMOKE, Almeida Theatre

BWW Review: SUMMER AND SMOKE, Almeida Theatre

BWW Review: SUMMER AND SMOKE, Almeida TheatreWe're... where exactly? And when? Well, at least we soon know the who.

Rebecca Frecknall hems in her actors with nine upright pianos - opened, their guts on show, but their souls (wonky, cranky, beautiful) emerging in music.

These inside-out instruments do the job of the hum of insects or the harsh midsummer light usually do for Tennessee Williams - we're both in the heat of the Deep South, but we're also delving into our innards to see if that ugly stuff can make music, the literal and metaphorical dissonance of body and soul being the key theme of the play.

Minister's daughter, Alma (who knows only too well that her name means "soul" in Spanish) is funny, clever and yearns, aches, pines for John, the James Dean/Marlon Brando-like rebel, who is reluctantly following in his doctor father's footsteps.

Alma's upbringing scarred her with so much fire and brimstone that she extinguishes the flame of passion whenever her heart flutters, her neurosis already gripping her like a vice, barely out of her teens. John lives the life of a libertine, but he's too clever to settle for that alone, and too egotistical to relinquish his hold over Alma.

Until it's too late, and all that sex they never had curdles into sourness and rejection.

Frecknall's bold decisions work perfectly. Retaining the drawling Southern voices gives us some sense of place, and there's the odd clue that we're in the early 20th century, but the absence of any set, save those bleeding pianos, makes the story universal, a cruel coming-of-age parable for all times and any time.

Williams's words are just fantastic (how did sentences, conversations and jokes like these lie unperformed for so long?), the dialogue washing over us - spiky at times - but such is the control of vocabulary, the mastery of rhythm, the authenticity of those voices, that the two and a half hours running time slides away like a fine mint julep. (I saw the movie Lady Bird a day earlier and, though sharing some themes with Summer and Smoke, the contrast in the sheer pleasure in language could hardly be more stark.)

Okay, some of the characters that swirl around the not-lovers feel a little stock. There's good work from Nancy Crane as Alma's doolally mother and from Forbes Masson doubling as both fathers who bestow daddy issues on the kids with such bludgeoning abandon. Anjana Vasan does what she can with a variety of femmes fatales (fillettes fatales really) but the whole point of those girls is that John saw them as empty vessels for his lust, so they come up very one-dimensional.

Not that it matters much, as the play is all about the two people whose lives and personalities are as entwined as their bodies are separated.

Matthew Needham may be dressed like a hayseed throughout, but he brings subtlety and warmth to a character who could be an unsympathetic monster in a less charismatic actor's hands. His best work is done in showing guilt, but never quite enough of it for him to, you know, actually be a decent person.

That said, despite John's professional redemption and cowardly cruelty after Alma's nervous breakdown, Needham still lets enough melancholy through for us not to hate him and to hope that there might be an Act Three some time in the future.

For all Needham's fine work and the confidence of the staging, this is Patsy Ferran's play. Initially a slight, Piaf-like figure, a singer who also teaches diction, Ferran soon dominates the space with her depiction of a woman whose spirit is imprisoned, but never still, never quiet, never asleep.

A performance that so easily could slide into ticks (fiddling with a ring) or shouty emoting (as I suspect it might on film) is mediated into a personal, intimate portrait of pain with a resolution that makes you cry with joy and anger all at once. To walk the tightrope between drama and melodrama for so long in such harsh light, with not a single misstep, is the stuff of award-winning work.

If the Almeida's recent The Twilight Zone rather impaled itself on the sword of its ambition and conceits, Summer and Smoke soars like the thermometer on a dog day afternoon in Mississippi. It's always a privilege to push into the noise and chaos of London and reflect that only theatre can make an evening like that - a sentiment wholly true of this fine production.

Summer and Smoke continues at the Almeida Theatre until 7 April.

Photo credit: Marc Brenner

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From This Author Gary Naylor

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