Magazine article The Spectator

Theatre: Summer and Smoke; Great Apes

Magazine article The Spectator

Theatre: Summer and Smoke; Great Apes

Article excerpt

Summer and Smoke by Tennessee Williams dates from the late 1940s. He hadn't quite reached the peaks of sentimental delicacy he found in his golden period but he was getting there. As a lesser-known curiosity, the script deserves a production that explains itself openly and plainly. Rebecca Frecknall has directed a beautiful and sometimes bizarre-looking show which is beset by 'great ideas'. What a great idea to encircle the stage with upright pianos that the actors can cavort on, and whose exposed innards can twinkle with atmospheric lights at poignant moments. The pianos are an ingenious and handsome solo effort but they serve the designer's ends and not the play's. Another great idea was to include a booming soundtrack, often irrelevant, sometimes intrusive. A third great idea was to relax the dress code and let the principal actors slob around in casual daywear and unshod feet. This obscures the play's central motif, which is the moral confusion of a deeply conservative and highly stratified society where a woman's ambitions in the world are shackled to her sexual self-restraint.

Williams uses all his charm, guile and human sympathy to examine a contradictory ethical code that requires a girl to remain a virgin before marriage but allows the chaps to bang away like donkeys. But it's very hard to guess that the show is set in small-town America in the 1940s, or that crucial scenes take place in a doctor's surgery. A casual viewer would assume that the action is contemporary and that the setting is a piano shop opening on to a veranda.

Matthew Needham, as boozy Dr Buchanan, dresses like a beatnik poet in tatty jeans and a ripped-open shirt. He sports the same beach-bum outfit when examining patients. So it's unclear why prim, nervy Alma is desperate to marry a chap who doesn't own a suit of clothes, pesters her for sex, calls her 'frigid', and has affairs with hookers. Misjudged visuals make the supporting roles difficult to follow as well. Buchanan's dad is a shouty pastor and his mum is an untethered noodle-head but there are no optical clues about their positions in the play so they seem like dotty vagrants entering the action at random.

Perhaps there wasn't enough cash to fund a proper production. Eight actors have to play a total of 14 characters. Anjana Vasan bravely takes on three entirely different female roles and creates nothing but bafflement each time she appears. …

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