It’s been a while since I’ve been to the Almeida, but watching Rebecca Frecknall’s production of Tennessee Williams’ Summer and Smoke, I was reminded why I love this north London theatre. This powerful, dreamlike production couldn’t have been bettered.
Young John Buchanan (Matthew Needham) returns to his father’s house, next door to Alma Winemiller (Patsy Ferran). Alma, conceived by Williams to represent the spirit (her name means ‘soul’ in Spanish, as she continually tells us), is in love with John, a doctor, who clearly represents the body, carrying on an affair with a local girl and drinking and carousing into the small hours. I’ve sometimes found Williams to be a bit too heavy-handed and literal in his symbolism, but the expressionistic nature of this production removes any hint of this, instead emphasising Alma’s state of mind with a row of pianos playing discordant notes. Patsy Ferran has gone from strength to strength since her West End debut in Blithe Spirit a few years ago; she is a tremendous actress and is perfect as Alma. Matthew Needham is also superb as John, and the two have excellent chemistry; their scenes together are full of tension. Most of the other actors play more than one character; Forbes Masson, for example, plays both Alma’s father and John’s, while Nancy Crane portrays Alma’s mentally disturbed mother and a local woman.
The intensity of the scenes between the main couple is balanced with welcome small-town social comedy, most particularly in the scene of the club meeting where a would-be writer threatens to read his lengthy epic. These scenes emphasise that Alma and John do not exist in a vacuum, and allows us a glimpse into Alma’s full, but not necessarily fulfilling, social life.
The play takes an unexpected and memorable turn towards the end, which has a profound effect on both protagonists and leaves the audience speechless. It’s early days, but this looks like being one of my highlights of the year.