Wednesday 21 November 2018

Theatre Review: Summer and Smoke

There’s a special quality of listening, isn’t there, when a theatre audience is really, properly engaged in a play? It’s like you could literally hear a pin drop. People don’t even think about coughing, or opening sweets or fidgeting with their bags, not for any reasons of theatre etiquette but because even if just for a few minutes coughing and sweets and fidgeting don’t exist. You get it so seldom, and I absolutely love it. 

It’s a very rare production indeed that can sustain this for its full run time. Summer and Smoke, the latest Almeida Theatre West End transfer (currently at the Duke of York’s - decent red wine but nowhere near enough ladies toilets) is the first thing I’ve seen in a while that does. One of the lesser performed Tennessee Williams plays, Summer and 
Smoke is identifiably his nonetheless: the American Deep South, a long suffering heroine, an utter shit of a leading man, a sticky and languid summer, someone getting shot.

What I found interesting about this play, though, is although all of the above is present and correct as expected, it’s not quite the Tennessee Williams I know, or thought I knew. Admittedly I’m no expert, but everything was a little more complicated than in other stuff of his I’ve seen. The plot is familiar, the broad character types too, but there’s nuance here that was a pleasant surprise to me. Or, to summarise in one plot point, the person I thought would get shot was 100% not the person who actually got shot.

I wonder how much of that isn’t actually down to the play and is in fact down to the production and, specifically, director Rebecca Frecknall. Because, to me, this feels like a very feminist take on Tennessee Williams; a Tennessee Williams where the women are in charge even if they’re still fighting against a system that doesn’t allow them to be; a Tennessee Williams that is completely right for 2018. And, perhaps unsurprisingly, I am fucking HERE for that.

Frecknall’s production is gorgeous and minimal. Sultry and sexy. Raw and powerful. Presented sans traditional scenery and with props limited to some chairs and hankies, it is surrounded by pianos with the entire cast (of eight) on stage most of the time. If the piano thing sounds weird, and I appreciate it does, then that’s because it’s difficult to describe and not because it doesn’t work. After a slight period of mental adjustment, they seem completely naturally. They do have a purpose, they are played throughout and Angus MacRae’s music is gorgeous. In Tom Scutt’s completely stripped back design they look gorgeous too, set as they are against nothing more than brick wall and muddy stage. Lee Curran’s sexy, understated lighting sets the whole shebang off to a tee.

If Rebecca Frecknall is the main reason I suspect I rated this production so highly, then she is quickly followed by her leading lady, the never not noteworthy Patsy Ferran. I’ve seen Ferran a number of times now and always thought that she’s really pretty good and certainly extremely watchable. Here, she’s extraordinary. She delicate and strong; funny and tragic; awkward and perfect. She made me laugh and cry approximately exactly the same amount. More prosaically, she has A LOT of dialogue, is basically never off stage and has to manage all of this in a hybrid Deep South-Rhodes Scholar accent, as specifically defined in the play. It’s an absolute gift of a performance, emotionally and technically. The rest of the cast is great too, particularly Matthew Needham as the obligatory awful man doing rage, hurt and tenderness with equal relish, and Anjana Vasan stealing the too few scenes she has (as both of the play’s ‘other women’) with a range that continues to be amazing to me. She’s one of my absolute favourite actresses around.

Summer and Smoke is a real gem of a thing. Tennessee Williams, but not quite as you know him. A production that shows exactly why we need more women directing in London theatre. And some of the best acting you’ll find anywhere. Get your tickets before they go.

Summer and Smoke is at the Duke of York’s theatre until 19th January.

I sat in seat E15 in the Upper Circle for this one and paid £10 for it in the TodayTix presale months and months ago (it would cost £25 if you booked it today). This seat is about three rows off the very back of the theatre but sight lines are unobstructed and legroom (I’m 5’ 7” plus bag) is fine. For what I paid it was great value and even at £25 it’s still pretty decent. 

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