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Alma Winemiller (Patsy Ferran) enters the stage through a semi-circle of pianos. She approaches a microphone, but she is unable to sing. She begins to violently hyperventilate until it becomes painful to witness. Such is Alma’s suffocating situation, in director Rebecca Frecknall’s revival of Tennessee Williams’ Summer and Smoke; in small town Glorious Hill, Mississippi in 1916, Alma has become a surrogate wife for her priest father (after her mother’s nervous breakdown); she cooks, cleans and teaches music to the local children. She has, she sadly admits, lost her youth.
When John Buchanan Jr (Matthew Needham) returns to town from medical school, she is eager to become reacquainted, and we find the central conflict in Williams’ play. Despite the gauntlet of pianos on stage, there is little harmony in Alma and Buchanan’s interactions. As a daughter to a priest, she seeks a spiritual connection, a romantic bond and, perhaps most importantly, a courtship acceptable in the eyes of her small society. Buchanan, on the other hand, is looking for something more visceral. He is a student of the body and a pillar of masculinity, more prone to letting his bodily desires dictate his behaviour.
But despite their differences, the two are united by their undeniable sexual attraction, brought to the fore in palpably tense scenes. Ferran and Needham’s chemistry is a pleasure to watch as they go to and fro trying to find common ground. They talk of the concept of eternity, which Buchanan sees through a telescope to the stars, whereas Alma sees it as a place beyond time and space and mortality.
These encounters lead to moments of tenderness, or sudden bursts of violence and aggression. It’s a question that goes unanswered, really; is it a societal repression of desire and sexual freedom that drives Buchanan into a spiral of booze, sex and gambling? Is it society’s expectations that cause Alma’s anxiety, to seek a ‘proper’ courtship? Or are these things simply magnified by her and Buchanan’s obvious differences?
Photo by Marc Brenner
Lee Curran’s gentle lighting design basks the stage in a warm and earthy glow, subtly undermining the rising tension which inevitably erupts into a devastating violent act. The pianos’ strings are exposed and harshly plucked in one moment of unendurable stress as Alma jerks and writhes around the stage when she learns Buchanan has been seeing another woman. And this is truly Ferran’s show – she endows Alma with incredible depth and nervous energy, at times explosive to the ones who are such a drain on Alma, at others she becomes completely naked with vulnerability.
With such a heartfelt, complex performance, you really believe Buchanan when he confesses, in the play’s most poignant line, ‘I’m more afraid of your soul than you are of my body.’
|What||Summer and Smoke, Duke of York's Theatre review|
|Where||Duke of York's Theatre, St Martin's Lane, London, WC2N 4BG | MAP|
|Nearest tube||Leicester Square (underground)|
10 Nov 18 – 19 Jan 19, 7:30 PM – 10:00 PM
|Website||Click here to book|