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Summer and Smoke: Almeida Theatre

March 21, 2018

(seen at the afternoon performance on 10th March 2018).

In a play concerned with religion and conformity, the Tom Scutt design of simple circular wooden floor, half enclosed by a raised step containing nine upright pianos is a masterpiece. 9 is, of course, a holy number – the number of times Christ appeared to his apostles, the spiritual gifts of God, St Paul’s nine fruits of spirit, and more. Alternatively, they may have had a German exchange student working on the show, who was asked if pianos were required…

Either way, combined with Lee Curran’s impressive lighting as we move towards enlightenment and the cast under Rebecca Frecknall’s expert economical direction, the result is a high-impact presentation of a lesser seen Tennessee Williams play.

Patsy Ferran is pastor’s daughter Alma Winemiller. Wracked with anxiety and unfulfilled needs for love, her infatuation with bad-boy Doctor’s son next door John Buchanan (Matthew Needham) is the arc of the play from one early summer to the following spring.

Ferran has developed into a towering acting presence. A fan from “Blithe Spirit” onwards, it is a joy to watch the full range of mature dramatic skill, so much more than simple comedy as so many more emotions are expressed, each as attuned as the other. Needham matches her line-for-line, his trickier emotional transition rendered credible thanks to an impressive natural physical quality in his body language.

Around the pair, the supporting cast are in stellar orbit of their own. As both Alma and John’s father, Forbes Masson needs only a cane to metamorphosize, frequently. He has a rather impressive singing voice too, it must be noted.

Vocally, and indeed metamorphorically, love interests Nellie, Rosemary, Rosa and Pearl, all played by Anjana Vasan are portrayed with equal skill. This versatile actor will hopefully be seen by enough casting agents during the run to ensure a full diary for years to come. To play both heart-breakers and heart-brokens and keep switching is a rare technical achievement.

As Alma’s mentally distressed mother and also neighbourhood observer (to be polite) Mrs Basset, Nancy Crane is another double actor able to carry off two difficult roles. Kleptomaniac or gossip, both are equally successful, her deterioration moving yet controlled when it would be all to easy to lose focus.

Eric MacLennan does well in the smaller roles of dangerous Papa Gonzales, and also as Vernon. A real sense of danger is neatly created. Similarly, Tok Stephen as Roger Doremus and Dusty is a neat co-conspiritor. Final mention for Seb Carrington, who waits until the end for a single scene as his professional debut, but is another to note for future casting as a supporting lead.

This tale of small town life, love and morality is almost instantly gripping, and holds attention not only in plot but the actual characters to the end. Intimate and satisfying as we share the emotional journey, it may not be quite the punchiest Williams ever, but it is certainly almost as memorable as the fabled Young Vic “Streetcar,” with a cast that equals them.

If you can get a ticket, go.

5 stars.

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