Review: Summer & Smoke, the Almeida

Published in The Independent on March 8, 2018

Patsy Ferran could probably stand on stage and read a bad undergraduate essay on Tennessee Williams and it’d sound like the most poignant thing you’ve ever heard. This young actor is a genuine marvel, as hilarious as she is heartbreaking. And as Alma in Williams’ rarely-performed 1948 play, she’s hit a real high note.

In fact, Rebecca Frecknall’s whole production seems to tremble like a sustained, held high note: fragile, uncertain, almost unbearably tense.

Music is key in her pleasingly abstract revival: nine pianos make a semi-circle, fronts off so you can see their anatomy (something that’ll become thematically important). The cast play Angus MacRae’s score like a subtext, amplifying unspoken desires and fears.

Alma is a young southern woman, a dutiful minister’s daughter who’s so nervous she’s prone to panic attacks. She’s in love her with her neighbour, John, a trainee doctor. He mocks her affected, convoluted speech – which Ferran mines brilliantly for laughs, while making clear it’s a protective suit for a sensitive soul.

He obviously sees something in her too, but is busy going concertedly off the rails: drinking every night at the casino, scandalously fooling around with its owner’s beautiful daughter (an appropriately luscious Anjana Vasan, who at one point gives a smoking-hot, soulful rendition of Portishead’s “Glory Box”).

John is marvellously played by Matthew Needham; amused deadpan mocking gives way to a stare so intense you worry it might set Ferran’s hair on fire. John is a dick, frankly, in the way he treats women. But god, you never doubt these two are meant for each other, that they have a unique ability to kindle a fire in each other.

The moment when he unbuttons her blouse – yes, yes, she is literally buttoned up, Williams ain’t always subtle – to put a stethoscope to her chest carries an insane erotic charge. Her heart’s not the only one racing.

Opposites attract, right? Williams’ play beautifully pushes this idea to its extremes, excavating two personalities and questioning societal assumptions about what men and women really want.

We start with a dichotomy: Alma is the soul, John the body. She is order, he anarchy. He forces her to look at an anatomy chart; she knows it’s missing something. Why shouldn’t he just give himself up to physical pleasures, he growls? Because they could connect on a much more profound level, she insists.

They both feel it in both body and soul, really. But it’s about what makes you vulnerable: he can’t bear to crack open his heart and she’s too scared to lift the lid on her physical desire.

One of the joys of Ferran’s performance is the way her incredibly exact gestures of anxiety – her hand fluttering to her neck, the mystery of what do with one’s elbows – also so perfectly reveal vast stores of repressed bodily longing. She’s like a glass, brimming with water; you hold your breath for the moment it’ll spill. The moment, of course, comes too late.

Simply staged, with only a few chairs, and gorgeously lit by Lee Curran (I loved how fireworks flashed in the bellies of the pianos), there is barely a bum note here. Frecknall’s production has a ballsy confidence in its non-naturalistic approach, rescuing Williams’ play from polite fussiness, but there’s also delicacy and precision.

An evening that makes a case for this play, announces Frecknall as a director of real vision, and confirms Ferran as one of our finest actresses.

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