Pros: A truly outstanding venue and similarly excellent cast.
Cons: Scraping the barrel to find any, although the reception area is quite narrow, and can get very crowded.
Visiting the Almeida is an event for any regular theatregoer. Originally built as a music hall in 1836, it retains unique circular dimensions which provide great sightlines and a natural sound dynamic. Further embarrassed by theatrical riches, I was there to see Summer and Smoke, a Tennessee Williams play. Not a Williams play that readily springs to mind, it made the big screen in 1961 with Laurence Harvey and Geraldine Page in the starring roles and was nominated for four Oscars. Such quality requires no hype and I knew it was going to be special.
It tells the story of a slow burning, misfiring romance between preacher’s daughter Alma Winemiller and doctor’s son John Buchanan. Alma and John grew up together and now share a relationship crackling with sexual tension. John is a doctor, like his father, and controls Alma with little more than a gesture or glance. However, she has competition in the form of sultry, attractive Rosa Gonzalez.
At times, it feels more of a two-hander than an ensemble piece as Alma and John occupy the stage for significant spells. Nevertheless, supporting characters give the story some much needed depth; particularly John’s demanding father and Alma’s needy mother. The southern states accent is well observed throughout and captured the unique lilt of Williams’ prose.
Like most Tennessee Williams stories, it is set in Mississippi and literally drips with tension and atmosphere. The characters are scarred and flawed by a harsh, unforgiving environment. The uncompromising drama is thankfully broken down by some genuinely amusing exchanges between Alma and John, which seemed even funnier because they were so unexpected.
The set was sparse and simply designed. A smart lighting system made spectacular use of the white brick walls, as colour and shade danced across the stage. The perimeter was lined with nine upright pianos. Cast members occasionally positioned themselves to play a haunting almost chilling soundtrack. The simplest of vocal techniques were employed to ramp up the tension even further. Alma and John used hand held microphones when they spoke to each other on the phone.
The cast are largely unknown, which can only strengthen the production as it doesn’t rely on star names to carry the play. Patsy Ferran as the nervous, highly strung Alma is quite brilliant, portraying a range of emotions that swing from near elation to total despair; while Matthew Needham delivers a memorable performance as the sinister, manipulative Doctor John. This is rock ‘n’ roll theatre, the type of play everyone should want to see. Cool, slick and undeniably sexy.
Author: Tennessee Williams
Director: Rebecca Frecknell
Producer: Almeida Theatre, by arrangement with the University of the South, Sewanee, Tennessee.
Booking Until: 7 April 2018
Box Office: 020 7359 4404
Booking Link: https://almeida.co.uk/whats-on/summer-and-smoke/24-feb-2018-7-apr-2018#open-calendar