Summer & Smoke is one of Tennessee Williams’ less well-known plays, and when my housemate said she wanted to see this production, I didn’t need too much convincing to check out the Almeida’s latest production. And it was a really excellent surprise.
The play follows Alma (Patsy Ferran), a preacher’s daughter who has adored the wayward doctor’s son John (Matthew Needham) since she was a child. Over the course of a summer, their interactions lead to both of their lives changing.
Rebecca Frecknall’s production is just incredibly atmospheric. Despite the design being kept to a bare minimum, with the stage just circled by pianos, Angus MacRae’s music and Lee Curran’s lighting really places you in the oppressive heat of the Southern summer.
Whilst the play was obviously written in the 1940s, many of the topics that the character’s discuss feel a lot more modern. Williams has Alma and John representing two radically different perspectives; she striving for a deep, spiritual connection with something, fascinated by the ‘reaching up’ of Gothic cathedrals, whilst he sees indulging his hungers for truth, food and sex as no bad thing.
This central conflict is made all the more engaging thanks to the performances. As John, Matthew Needham is suitably brooding and you can see why Alma would be attracted to him, he definitely has a dangerous edge of sexuality. He is also, of course, a pretty terrible person. However, this play completely belongs to Patsy Ferran. Her performance is just phenomenal. There is just something about seeing an actor completely disappear inside their character, and it just felt like you were truly watching Alma. Alma is a character who teeters on the edge of hysteria, bought about by her circumstances, and Patsy makes her endearingly awkward, her nervousness around John feels so true. I so hope that this performance is remembered during the award season.
The rest of the cast do great work in numerous roles, notably Forbes Masson as both Alma and John’s fathers who reveals a stunning singing voice, and Anjana Vasan, who plays John’s two very different other love interests.
You should definitely check this play out, I feel like this play has wrongly been neglected, and Ferran’s performance is worth the entire price of admission.