Review: Summer and Smoke, Almeida

A rarely performed Tennessee Williams emerges as a real gift in the form of Rebecca Frecknall’s Summer and Smoke at the Almeida

“I’m more afraid of your soul than you’re afraid of my body”

When ‘director’s theatre’ looks and feels like this, it’s hard to believe that anyone would take against it. Director Rebecca Frecknall, aided by designer Tom Scutt, throws out the rulebook when it comes to Tennessee Williams, and comes up with something beautiful, something that genuinely feels like Williams for a contemporary age.

It helps that Summer and Smoke is relatively unheralded among his vast canon. And that the Almeida under Rupert Goold is as close as you’ll come to a director’s theatre. But the key is Frecknall’s vision of a world unmoored from the turn-of-the-century Mississippi setting and relocated to somewhere altogether more elemental. 

The staging, with all its pianos, is ingenious. Striking both to look at and to listen to, as the cast use them to create a wide-ranging soundscape (composed by Angus MacRae) that tracks the tempestuous emotional relationship between Patsy Ferran’s Alma and Matthew Needham’s John.

Here, Ferran lives up to the billing of the Second Coming that the critical community seems determined to foist on her. Her way of moving, acting, even thinking, sets her out as matchless among her peers, a thoroughly untypical Williams heroine and all the stronger for it.

She’s matched well by the no less intense Needham, and supported by strong turns from Nancy Crane, Anjana Vasan and Forbes Masson to name just a few. And the cumulative effect is nothing short of glorious, the rare kind of revival that breathes a new, different life into the material. 

Running time: 2 hours 35 minutes (with interval)
Photos: Marc Brenner
Summer and Smoke is booking at the Almeida Theatre until 7th April

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