Rebecca Frecknall had previously taken on Tennessee Williams’ Summer And Smoke as a student whilst at Goldsmiths, followed by her Southwark Playhouse production in 2012. Now third time lucky, Frecknall has struck gold transferring her production at the Almeida Theatre from earlier this year to St Martin’s Lane. Even though it is set more than 100 years ago, its themes of loneliness, desire and heartbreak are just as powerful today.
The play centres on Alma, the young frail daughter of a cleric and performed extraordinarily by Patsy Ferran. Over one long summer she and her neighbour John, local doctor and bad-boy of Mississippi’s Glorious Hill, fall in love and we follow their cyclical path round one another, flowing in and out of tactile passion to sheer nerves and resistance from each other.
Summer And Smoke is reliant on these two performances. Thankfully, both Ferran and Matthew Needham shine with incredible detail in their physicality towards each other as well as their individual emotional journeys which are clearly thought through. The endearing nature of Alma means Ferran naturally comes across stronger. Nonetheless, Needham as John provides sensitive emotional control. Nancy Craine and Forbes Masson as Alma’s parents also give great performances as support.
The plot of Summer And Smoke seems to wash over you; its slow pace means there is never an instantly heartbreaking moment watching Alma and John’s relationship develop. This isn’t a negative comment, but you come away from the show feeling more impacted and reflective of the overall theme of loneliness of the play rather than the specificities of our protagonist’s ever-developing romance. Frecknall also seems to be highly influenced by the art movement of impressionism, to which I pinpoint the music. She places seven pianos on stage to be performed by the majority of the cast and they experiment around all areas and strings of the instrument to see how this affects we the audience see Alma’s mentality unfold during the summer.
This rich take on Williams’ gem is full of detail and it impacts just as gently as it did in the Almeida. Frecknall has triumphed in treating all of Williams’ objectives towards each character with such delicacy, as well as bringing out all the emotional potential within the quite simply brilliant Patsy Ferran.
Reviewed by Barry O’Reilly
Photo: Marc Brenner
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