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Review: Summer and Smoke, at Almeida Theatre

Rarely performed Tennessee Williams piece set in a small Mississippi town is a visually stunning production

15 March, 2018 — By John Courtney O’Connor

Patsy Ferran and Forbes Masson in Summer and Smoke. Photo: Marc Brenner

DIRECTOR Rebecca Frecknall uses the process and effects of “Plastic Theatre” to the maximum in this production of Tennessee Williams’ rarely performed Summer and Smoke.

With a knock-out performance by Patsy Ferran as Alma, music plays a key role – the bare set has nine pianos in a semi-circle up stage with no backdrop, while a bare wall gives a workshop quality.

Set in a small Mississippi town, a minister’s daughter and repressed teacher Alma has the hots for John, the free-wheeling doctor’s son (Matthew Needham).

She hopes for a spiritual relationship while he’s more interested in the sultry Mexican, played by Anjana Vasan, who can also belt out a good number on the vocals.

John takes Alma to a casino and suggests that they spend a night together. She storms off and he wants to listen to a rendering of Yellow Bug Blues.

In the second part of the piece the two main characters trade places philosophically, John tells Alma he is more afraid of her soul than she is of his body, leaving the sensualist Alma eyeing up a young ice-cream salesman (Archie Kramer).

When it premiered in 1948, audiences and critics were disappointed, comparing it with his earlier Streetcar Named Desire. The piece barely gets a mention in Williams’ own memoirs.

This is a visually stunning production; however, I would not put Summer and Smoke (originally entitled Chart of Anatomy) in the premier league of Williams’ plays.

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