×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

West End Review: ‘Summer and Smoke’

With:
Seb Carrington, Nancy Crane, Patsy Ferran, Eric MacLennan, Forbes Masson, Matthew Needham, Tok Stephen, Anjana Vasan.

2 hours 40 minutes

It’s hard to imagine “Summer and Smoke“ in better shape. Rebecca Frecknall’s spare staging takes a lesser Tennessee Williams play and reveals the great drama at its core — a devastating fable of half-requited love, missed moments and the ways we waste what little life we get. Transferring from the Almeida to the West End, it boasts it two phenomenal performances at its heart: Patsy Ferran is a quiver of anxiety as Alma; Matthew Needham’s John, a river of despair. You will them together, knowing full well they’re bound to tear each other apart. It’s agonizing to watch.

From its first arresting image — Ferran, spotlit, gasping for breath — “Summer and Smoke” never lets up. So much so that, on this evidence, it’s hard to fathom why it isn’t routinely considered among Williams’ best work. Frecknall makes the case for it by zooming right in, blurring its background. Her supporting cast play several parts each, more as archetypes than individuals — mothers and fathers, lovers and gossips — and as the small-town community starts to recede, the play’s full focus falls on its central pair: a brittle Southern belle and a beast of a bloke. That’s the Williams way, the formula he tweaks in play after play: Stanley and Blanche; Maggie and Brick; Laura and the Gentleman Caller who shatters her heart. Distilled, “Summer and Smoke” becomes a shot of Tennessee, neat.

Alma Winemiller is besotted with the boy next door, Doctor John Buchanan. She’s a fragile soul, a minister’s daughter whose mother has lost her mind, and he’s very much not, a doctor’s son who has taken to drink. Raised in a spiritual household, Alma (Spanish for soul) is unworldly, a pure-voiced singing teacher who’s too delicate for life. John, by stark contrast, is drawn to earthly pleasures: to abandon, to lust, to cruelty and, in spite of his baser instincts, to Alma. Her sweetness seems a salvo to his depressive self-destruction, but he can’t help himself. The more she dotes, the more viciously he swats her away — the fly to his wanton boy.

The pair couldn’t be more perfectly cast. Ferran’s mousy as Alma; Needham is wolfish as John. She’s always on tip-toes and he’s always at heel. Gulping down air and hiccupping up nervous giggles, Ferran wears her heart on her sleeve, so that everything she feels flickers, very visibly, across her face. John, watchful, circles her like a coyote stalking easy prey. You’re never quite sure what he’s up to or whether he’s sincere. He’s caring one second, a devoted doctor, then vicious the next, and Ferran’s Alma, “always mystified and amazed by unprovoked malice,” is too trusting not to get hurt time and again.

That’s the awful tragedy — two people bound together by a love that can’t come to bear, destined to ruin one another on repeat. Emphasizing the eternity invoked in Williams’ script with metronomes ticking and hymns floating overhead, Frecknall elevates their relationship to a metaphysical affair. Alma and John become opposing forces, two sides of human nature: light and dark, saint and sinner, spirit and flesh. But it remains, absolutely, a human drama. Ferran and Needham make you care deeply for the pair, whatever their wounds and their flaws.

Fittingly for a play that pits beauty against desire, it looks ravishing. Tom Scutt’s spare design encircles the stage with seven upright pianos, their casings open, their guts on show. As the company score the action live, sometimes with tinkles, sometimes tumbles of notes, the atmosphere’s spine-tingling. From these mechanical objects, beautiful sounds spring — a direct rebuttal to John’s reductive view that sees only bodies and leaves no room for souls.

Instead, everything pulls in two directions: godliness and devilry, darkness and light. Scutt’s semi-circlular stage suggests a cockfighting ring, even as the bare bricks behind it rise up like cathedral walls. Lee Curran’s lighting thickens the air with heavy golden hues and deep southern heat, but cuts across it with shafts of crisp, cold white light. It’s as if light and dark were doing battle overhead as two opposites attract, only to repel one another again and again.

West End Review: 'Summer and Smoke'

Duke of York’s Theatre, London; 640 seats; £95 ($120) top. Opened, reviewed Nov. 20, 2018. Running time:2 HOURS, 40 MIN.

Production: An Almeida Theatre production of a play in two acts by Tennessee Williams.

Creative: Directed by Rebecca Frecknall; design, Tom Scutt; lighting, Lee Curran; sound, Carolyn Downing; composer and musical director, Angus MacRae

Cast: Seb Carrington, Nancy Crane, Patsy Ferran, Eric MacLennan, Forbes Masson, Matthew Needham, Tok Stephen, Anjana Vasan.

More Legit

  • The American Clock review

    London Theater Review: 'The American Clock'

    Time is money. Money is time. Both come unstuck in “The American Clock.” Arthur Miller’s kaleidoscopic account of the Great Depression, part autobiography, part social history, crawls through the decade after the Wall Street crash, dishing up snapshots of daily life. In the Old Vic’s classy revival, director Rachel Chavkin (“Hadestown”) tunes into the play’s [...]

  • Jake Gyllenhaal

    Off Broadway Review: Jake Gyllenhaal in 'Sea Wall/A Life'

    Comfy? Okay, let’s talk Death: sudden death, painful death, lingering death, accidental death, and whatever other kinds of death happen to come into the receptive minds of playwrights Simon Stephens (“Sea Wall”) and Nick Payne (“A Life”). The writing in these separate monologues — playing together on a double bill at the Public Theater — [...]

  • Michael Jackson Estate Cancels Musical Test-Run

    Michael Jackson Estate Cancels Musical Test-Run

    With an HBO documentary that places strong allegations of abuse against Michael Jackson premiering in two weeks, the late singer’s estate announced Thursday that it’s canceling a scheduled Chicago test run of a jukebox musical about him. The estate and its producing partner in the musical, Columbia Live Stage, said that they’re setting their sights on going [...]

  • All About Eve review

    West End Review: Gillian Anderson and Lily James in 'All About Eve'

    To adapt a crass old adage: it’s “All About Eve,” not “All About Steve.” Stripping Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s sharp-witted screenplay about a waning theater star of its period trappings, Ivo van Hove’s stage adaptation fine-tunes its feminism for our own sexist age — image-obsessed, anti-aging, the time of Time’s Up. Rather than blaming Lily James’ [...]

  • Adam Shankman

    Listen: Why Adam Shankman Directs Every Movie Like It's a Musical

    Director Adam Shankman’s latest movie, the Taraji P. Henson comedy “What Men Want,” isn’t a musical. But as one of Hollywood’s top director-choreographers of musicals and musical sequences, he approaches even non-musicals with a sense of tempo. Listen to this week’s podcast below: More Reviews Film Review: 'Great Bear Rainforest' London Theater Review: 'The American [...]

  • Matthew Bourne's 'Cinderella' Review

    L.A. Theater Review: Matthew Bourne's 'Cinderella'

    How much can you change “Cinderella” before it is no longer “Cinderella”? In the case of choreography maestro Matthew Bourne — who, it should be said, first unveiled his spin on the classic folk tale some 22 years ago — the music is most certainly “Cinderella” (Prokofiev’s 1945 score, to be exact), but the plot [...]

  • 'Pinter Seven' Review: Martin Freeman Stars

    West End Review: 'Pinter Seven' Starring Martin Freeman

    “Pinter at the Pinter” has been an education — a crash course in Britain’s greatest post-war playwright. Director-producer Jamie Lloyd’s star-studded, six-month sprint through Harold Pinter’s short plays and sketches has been exquisitely curated and consistently revelatory. Not only has Lloyd tuned audiences into the writer’s technique, his unconventional groupings have exposed a load of [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content