Summer and Smoke at the Almeida Theatre
In years to come people will look back on Rebecca Frecknall’s intense production of Summer and Smoke and marvel at how lucky we were to witness Patsy Ferran and Matthew Needham together in such an intimate setting.
The play is typical Tennessee Williams fare – if not quite up there with his best – and tells the sweltering story of Alma (Ferran), the reputable daughter of the local minister, and John (Needham), the laconic son of the doctor next door. Repressed lust, stifling religion, simmering small town tension: a cocktail as heady as the sun is hot.
To describe her as magnetic doesn’t do justice to Ferran. It’s rare to see an actor with such control over their body, both in her own movements and her awareness of her proximity to others. Alma – on paper at least – appears to be constructed from outdated ideas of female “hysteria”, her heartache manifesting itself in nervousness and bouts of physical weakness. Yet, in the hands of Ferran and Frecknall, she is as fierce as she is fragile: a robin with a lion’s roar, scalpel-sharp and unspeakably charming. And while it’s hardly a secret that the leading lady is fantastic, this genuinely feels like her breakout moment.
For all Ferran’s strength, without an equally surefooted partner she’d end up steamrolling the whole performance. Luckily, she’s paired with Needham, a recent Almeida MVP (he was the best thing in both The Treatment and The Twilight Zone last year). There are moments when, stood next to the young actress, he looks like the “beast to her beauty”: a hunched, domineering presence whose easy drawl masks a well of anger and alcohol-fueled aggression. He’s a lost soul searching – unwittingly or otherwise – for the respectable skin Alma seeks to shed.
The scenes between the pair are balletic. Scored by nine mourning pianos – gorgeous guts exposed – or even better, pin-drop silence, they push and pull in the dusty light – at times pugilistic, at others heart-stoppingly tender.
Though it wobbles when away from the leads – more a problem with the narrative than anything else, as the play lacks a particularly well-developed set of ancillary characters – the director has produced something sensual while avoiding the sickly Southern sentiment that’s a danger with Williams. And it’s perfectly suited to the Almeida: a classic – or at least a classic writer – sanded down until all that’s left is the shimmering core. God knows what Frecknall, Ferran and Needham could do with A Streetcar Named Desire.
Summer and Smoke is at the Almeida Theatre from 24th February until 7th April 2018. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.