Review: Summer and Smoke (Duke of York's Theatre)

Patsy Ferran and Matthew Needham reprise their roles in the West End transfer of Tennessee Williams’ play

Matthew Needham (John Buchanan) and Patsy Ferran (Alma) in Summer and Smoke
Matthew Needham (John Buchanan) and Patsy Ferran (Alma) in Summer and Smoke
© Marc Brenner

From the outset, as a waif-like Patsy Ferran stands in a golden spotlight convulsing wordlessly at a mic stand while the rest of the cast, ranged around her and facing upstage, hammer away discordantly at a septet of upright pianos, it's clear this is no ordinary Tennessee Williams staging. Rebecca Frecknall's production is every bit as much of a deconstruction or revisal of this seldom seen 1948 text as was the Stephen Daldry take on An Inspector Calls for the National back in the nineties, or Ivo van Hove's stark reimagining of A View From The Bridge at the Young Vic and beyond a few years ago.

When I first saw it at the Almeida this spring I thought it was a cracking production of a mediocre play, crowned by an astonishing central performance. Ferran has, if anything, got even better as Miss Alma, the neurasthenic reverend's daughter from rural Tennessee, in a state of permanent conflict between her morality and her desires, between her responsibilities and a yearning for freedom. She's like a creature with one less layer of skin than everybody else, but cursed with the intelligence to be acutely aware of that fact. Her brittle, humourless laughter, tight-lipped jealousies and sudden jolts of hysterical fury prevent this desperately over-sensitive young woman from being a passive victim. Ferran is too good an actress to play simply for laughs or pity, yet this Alma elicits plenty of both. It is a spellbinding performance that will be forever etched on the memories of theatregoers lucky enough to see it.

What is wonderful to witness though is how in the intervening months between Islington and the West End, the rest of an already strong acting company have raised their game to match her. Most notable is Matthew Needham as John Buchanan, the louche, sexy would-be doctor who is both Alma's potential saviour from herself and is instrumental in her ultimate downfall. Needham meticulously conveys John's inner conflict, also his watchfulness and strange moments of heart-melting kindness. He is utterly superb.

From Nancy Crane as Alma's cranky, ice-cream obsessed mother, mentally ill but prone to speaking uncomfortable truths at inopportune moments, to Forbes Masson brilliantly doubling as a pair of frustrated patriarchs, the acting has acquired an urgency and intensity that didn't come across as strongly before. Anjana Vasan brings a thrilling vividness and specificity to a quartet of roles including two of Alma's rivals for John's affection, and Seb Carrington makes a lovely West End debut as a young travelling salesman who encounters Alma after her fall from grace.

Summer and Smoke may be too schematic and symbolically heavy-handed to rank alongside the 'big three' Williams masterpieces but it eschews the melodramatic excesses of other second tier works such as Orpheus Descending or The Night Of The Iguana. Frecknall's production embraces the play's lyricism and its oddness, simultaneously evoking both a lost Deep Southern world and the heroine's fractured mind through Lee Curran's stunning lighting, Carolyn Downing's transporting sound design and ingenious, extensive use of Angus Macrae's music. Tom Scutt's set for the West End recreates the bricked cyclorama of the Almeida stage and provides the perfect landscape for a staging that in its pared-down but emotionally rich expressiveness sometimes resembles a piece of modern dance.

A visionary production and likely to be a career-changing one for its director and stars. Go and wallow in it.