Ex-Bond girl and Hitchcock Blonde Rosamund Pike (pictured) returned to the West End last night (18 October 2006, previews from 11 October) to star in Tennessee Williams’ rarely performed 1947 drama Summer and Smoke, directed by former RSC artistic director Adrian Noble at Shaftesbury Avenue’s Apollo Theatre.
Pike takes the part of minister’s daughter Alma Winemiller, who finds her youthful passions rekindled with the return of the neighbour’s hard-living prodigal son John Buchanan, played by American Chris Carmack, best known from TV’s The OC. The cast also features Talulah Riley and Christopher Ravenscroft.
Overnight critics enjoyed the conflicting themes of spirituality and carnality put forth in Williams’ play and praised the performances of the two leads in Noble’s production. However, some felt that the director might have gleaned both more levity and emotional intensity from the piece.
Michael Coveney on Whatsonstage.com (4 stars) – “Summer and Smoke… is a play of more than passing interest and importance. For one thing, Williams felt that he never wrote a better female portrait than Alma Winemiller, the Mississippi daughter of a preacher and his batty wife, who weighs the life of the spirit against the pull of carnality and messes up the math…. her struggle with idealism in contrast to John’s uncomplicated ‘sinfulness’ – this is a play as much about shame as about anything – is engaged with a diagrammatic, but always enthralling, inevitability…. Adrian Noble’s fine production, seen earlier this month at the Nottingham Playhouse, could not be better cast. Rosamund Pike is a perfect Alma, combining peaches and cream beauty with a steel thread of self-doubt and spiritual decency…. Opposite her, the handsome American actor Chris Carmack compensates for the cut-out cardboard-ness of John as written – Williams found it virtually impossible, he admitted, to bring the character to life – with a charismatic stage presence and a frightening animalism.”
Michael Billington in the Guardian (3 stars) – Billington described the play as “a variation on O'Neill's A Moon for the Misbegotten. But, although Williams' play is full of plangent poetic beauty, it cannot match its rival for sheer emotional intensity…. There is much in the play to admire. Williams' evocation of small-town American life in 1916 is well-nigh perfect: the cultural clubs, the all-pervasive gossip, the conflict between the Puritan ethos and louche Mexican casinos, are all wonderfully observed. Williams also has a wry Southern humour that plays lightly over the action… If the play has a fault, it is that the characters are not fully in sync with the theme. Williams is clearly fascinated by the polarity of spirit and flesh…. Far from a figure of rare delicacy, Alma is simply a shy woman with perfectly normal longings; equally, Buchanan merely appears a bit of a hell-raiser rather than an expression of raw American animalism. One's doubts are overcome by the Chekhovian atmosphere of Adrian Noble's production and the performances. Rosamund Pike endows Alma with a porcelain beauty and a simmering sensuality. Chris Carmack makes you believe in Buchanan's conversion from dissipated wreck to medical idealist…. If not vintage Tennessee, it is a play which fully justifies revival.”
Benedict Nightingale in The Times (4 stars) – “Pike resists the temptation to emphasise the character’s Southern preciosity, giving us a woman who is as serious and mentally able as she is beautiful. She flashes big, white smiles, but they are mostly social, a glimmer that conceals the feelings simmering within. She is especially effective at the moments when Dr John unbuttons her blouse before applying his stethoscope to her chest, or kisses her at that very questionable casino…. It is genuinely erotic stuff, but, without any forcing on Williams’ part, it also leads to a fascinating moral debate. What makes a person? At another emotional climax, John shows Alma an anatomy chart: head for reasoning, belly for ingesting food, genitals for what he calls love and she a mere animal drive…. The result is an ending that reverses both our expectations and the two main characters. But to reveal more would be to spoil your enjoyment of a production that is never less than absorbing and well performed by everyone.”
Nicholas de Jongh in the Evening Standard (3 stars) – “Adrian Noble's production misses Williams' bleak comedy and becomes too winsomely picturesque, but reveals the play's enduring vitality…. Unable to summon up symptoms of spinsterishness, to suggest what sexual longings pulse beneath Alma's facade or to sob uncontrollably, Miss Pike's Alma wafts serenely through her small-town life…. She scarcely simmers with undercover desire for him or fear of him when he gets out his stethoscope and undoes her blouse. Carmack's local homme fatal does not simply flaunt his sexy, model-boy good looks. His surprisingly powerful and intense performance reflects John's self-disgust and dismay that for him love is all down to sex - a violent contest that draws blood, scratches and disaster. Alma seeks a soulful and spiritual bond with the violently sexual John. He reveals himself mildly intrigued by her flaming Puritanism, a Puritanism she at last rejects - but too late…. Williams wrestles fascinatingly with sex and love. It makes a fine match.”
- by Caroline Ansdell