Summer and Smoke – Duke of York’s Theatre, London

Writer: Tennessee Williams

Director: Rebecca Frecknall

Reviewer: Scott Matthewman

Alma, a nervy rector’s daughter who is keen to let people know her name is Spanish for ‘soul’, has carried a torch for the boy next door for years. Following his father into medicine, John is everything she is not: gregarious, commanding, sexual.

The dichotomy between these two characters is at the heart of Tennessee Williams’s play, and is also perhaps why it is seen as a lesser work compared toCat on a Hot Tin Roofor A Streetcar Named Desire. The metaphorical battle between the pair is, perhaps, a little too obvious: faith pitched against science, the virtuous soul versus the libidinous heart, idealised romance versus impassioned sex.

But even an inferior Williams work has the potential to rise above works by more contemporary playwrights. And that is something this production strives for, with a staging by director Rebecca Frecknell that first debuted at the Almeida Theatre earlier this year.

Tom Scutt’s beautiful design, which places the action in a semi-circular stage surrounded by an arc of seven upright pianos, is effectively transposed to the Duke of York’s Theatre, the Almeida’s red brick back wall recreated in St Martin’s Lane. The pianos, and chairs for the players, are the sole elements of set, save for a microphone stand or two. They also form the musical backdrop for the piece, actors’ playing fusing with Carolyn Downing’s sound design to accompany Williams’s dialogue with a haunting, mournful soundscape.

The stripped back, expressionist staging allows for the actors to focus on the emotional content of Williams’s dialogue. Patsy Ferran as Alma is central here, delivering a performance of subtle delicacy. Her sense of repression, her need to be desired on a spiritual level, play across her face with the kind of micro-expression that may not always carry to the back of a West End auditorium as well as it did in the Almeida. But one is never in any doubt what her character is feeling, even when that is at odds with what she is saying.

Matthew Needham’s John is an effective contrast: he is strong and assured where Alma is fragile and prone to panic attacks. And while his attempts to seduce Alma quickly give way instead to a fiery relationship with Anjana Vasan’s Rosa.

Forbes Masson, playing a dual role as each of the couple’s fathers, complements the central relationship with some finely judged characterisation. But it is through Ferran and Needham’s performances that one can quite see his these intractable opposites attract, the emotional sparks between the pair igniting like the fireworks of Lee Curran’s impressive lighting design.

And yet one is left wondering whether that dichotomy, of the soul versus the soulless, is enough to sustain a full two-act play. For all the strengths of this production, that question mark hanging over Summer and Smoke is the reason why this is truly a lesser Williams play.

Runs until 19 January 2019. | Image: Marc Brenner

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