I thought I was going to drown making my way into the West End on Saturday. Saying the heavens had opened feels a pitiful understatement at the volume of rain that fell out of the sky in just a couple of hours, of course causing traffic chaos and generally soggy bad temperedness among my fellow travellers. Abandoning my bus after it sat stationary at a traffic light for nearly 15 minutes, I took my chances on foot among the infuriatingly aimless sauntering tourists.
My damp frustration and was replaced with delight when I reached the Duke of York Theatre. Celebrating a friend’s birthday, a small group of us were gathering to see a lesser known Tennessee Williams play, Summer and Smoke. Directed by Rebecca Frecknall and starring Patsy Ferran and Matthew Needham as the leads I didn’t do any research bar finding out Williams penned it in 1948 and it was set in turn of the century (ish) Mississippi.
A couple of gin cocktails restored my sense of humour and we settled into our stall seats. The staging was unique in that the backdrop was an exposed brick wall with pendant and spot lights suspended across it. A semi-circular platform, raised by a couple of small steps, was erected at the back of the stage upon which sat seven pianos all facing away from the audience.
The lights dimmed, and what turned out to be the entire cast each sat in front of a piano to play an introduction. The stifling environment of the play’s setting, a humid summer in a southern state, elegantly invoked and emphasized by the yellow hue of lighting that dominated the production. The rural setting was highlighted by all the actors being barefoot, giving the impression of village locals at home. The story itself follows Alma Winemiller (Ferran) a highly strung minister’s daughter and John Buchanan (Needham) an undisciplined doctor who grew up as Alma’s neighbour.
These contradictory characters inevitably clashing in every way also ignite a passion between them that seems as impossible as it does fated. Their interactions sizzle with an incredible intensity that is palpable. Alma, who repeatedly reminds that her name means ‘soul’ in Spanish, feels duty bound by her father’s position in the community and obligated to her family, helping to care for her mother who has had a nervous breakdown and behaves like a delinquent child. The action starts with Alma hyperventilating during a prolonged anxiety attack which inspired a great level of both discomfort and sympathy.
John, breezing into town and Alma’s life, creates a delicious tension. His character initially came across as the lovable rogue type for me, the kind of fabled bad boy who is dangerously irresistible. Not true for Alma though, who rejects John’s pursuit of her along with his reckless hedonistic lifestyle, despite her attraction to him. His resulting reaction is quite cruel and emotionally brutal; a petulant response from a self-serving man interested in instant gratification and lacking to see any meaning in his actions or existence.
Throughout the first half Alma’s stiff body language subtly shifts as she begins to change while John seems to deflate as he loses control completely and his life spirals downward. The second half returns to the town at the end of summer, and in the time passed Alma has morphed completely through introspection and withdrawing herself, while John has been forced to learn, ‘grow up’ as it were, through violent consequences of his self-destructive behaviour. The two have now traded moral positions and it is Alma who is rejected by John as she throws herself at him.
There is such a sense of sadness watching a couple that on the surface appear to belong together but the tension between them is dangerously combustible and ill timed. 70 years after it was written this play feels like an antidote to the expectations that happy ending fairy tales have embedded in our societal subconscious. An almost realistic melodrama if that isn’t too much of a contradiction.
The simple production design formed the ideal setting for the emotional and dramatic dynamics swirling around between the characters. At one point the prevailing yellow light of sticky heat and (emotional) discomfort was replaced by a cold brilliant white masking the smoke filled stage in a blank sheet of eerie light in a direct ‘clean’ contrast so stark. It was a beautiful moment, an embodiment of the action occurring on stage. The addition of intermittent live piano intensified the emotion for me as an audience member and helped take me back in time a century and feel more familiar with a period and location totally alien to my own life.
I was so very impressed, saddened, enraged and moved by this production. The standing ovation they received was well deserved. Thinking back on it I’m getting mild chills. I cannot fault the performances or staging at all, this play is simply perfect – except for its limited run! Tickets are available at ATG and I cannot encourage anyone more strongly, catch this incredible production while you can, it’s an absolute gem.