Over the years, poor audience numbers on both sides of the Atlantic and a perceived failure to live up to Cat on a Hot Tin Roof means that Summer and Smoke is a play so rarely staged that this latest production, at The Duke of York’s Theatre, feels like watching a new Tennessee Williams play for the very first time. Director, Rebecca Frecknall has reignited a spark under this often forgotten work, meaning it’s current West End transfer is the result of a sell-out, and critically acclaimed, run at The Almeida earlier this year.
Like so much of Williams’ work, Summer and Smoke is set in small town America, specifically in the searing heat, and conservative heart of the South. Alma, the daughter of a minister, is plagued with anxiety and self-doubt, but perseveres to be a good Christian, even when the swell of sexual desire all but consumes her. She’s quick to point out that her name is Spanish for soul, but when her heart draws her to next door neighbour John Buchanan, the young and impetitous doctor is just as quick to point out on a medical chart that there’s no room for a soul in the human body.
The focus of Summer and Smoke is Alma; a character who is in constant battle with herself, fighting to rise above the temptations of the flesh to stand by her faith, all while anxiety engulfs her every endeavour. John Buchanan is the polar opposite, enjoying a string of romantic encounters with a seeming detachment to his chosen career.
With Alma being such a pivotal role, the pressure to deliver does not seem to have affected Patsy Ferran, who reprises her role from the Almeida run. Ferran’s highly accomplished performance is theatrical perfection, Ferran shows herself capable of pulling out each individual strand of Alma, only to weave them back together again to create a character which the audience has no trouble in finding empathy for.
The cast as a whole is strong, particularly Matthew Needham as John Buchanan, tantalisingly teasing both Alma, and the audience, with a searing sense of character. Nancy Crane is also captivating as Mrs Winemiller, the Mother which Alma must care for and protect, perhaps even more so than she does herself.
The entire play takes place around one set; a dirt pit surrounded by pianos which are often played by members of the ensemble when a little additional atmosphere is called for. In a few key scenes, dramatic lighting changes radically transforms the aesthetic, and lighting designer Lee Curran has embraced Williams’ original stage directions to deliver this effectively. The result is a production where the oppression and suffocating solitude of small town life is unmistakable.
With Summer and Smoke, Rebecca Frecknall has successfully achieved what many before her have failed to do; to really get under the skin of Alma, and see the character through the many different lenses with which Williams wrote her. Combined with a truly mesmerising performance from Patsy Ferran, this cast and creative team have forged a production which positively smoulders with authenticity, oppression and desire. This rarely staged play will surely now be the talk of the West End for some time to come.