Tim Walker gives five stars to this production about a highly-strung minister’s daughter who, falls in love with a local lad named John, but is never quite able to find a way to express it until it is too late.
As a young reporter, sent out to do big interviews, I had a stock question I’d always finish off with: ‘Are you happy?’ Most people professed to be, but I never once felt it elicited an entirely honest reply.
I gave up asking it after I finally got around to Glenda Jackson and she let rip. ‘Happiness is a modern-day obsession and I’m sick of it,’ she scolded me. ‘No one can or should expect to be happy all their life. It doesn’t happen. And, what is more, I don’t think you can be a proper human being if you’ve not known misery.’
There is no question that Tennessee Williams would go along with that. Drawing room comedies were certainly not his thing. The great American playwright liked to write about humanity under maximum pressure, as that is, of course, the only time true character becomes apparent.
Summer and Smoke is a profoundly depressing play about Alma, a highly-strung minister’s daughter who, in rural Mississippi at the turn of the last century, falls in love with a local lad named John, but is never quite able to find a way to express it until it is too late.
Matthew Needham is on fine form as the object of Alma’s affection. He is at the start a brute of a lad who admits he hit his mother as she reached out to try to hold his hand on her deathbed, but, as the play progresses and he gets older, he develops into a kinder, gentler soul.
The stand-out performance – and quite frankly I doubt now I will see a better one this year – is Patsy Ferran as Alma. She plays the character as a delicate, fragile, frigid sparrow of a girl. She has had to take over running the household for her father (Forbes Masson) as her mother (Nancy Crane) has had a breakdown and turned into a bitter, twisted old monster who lives on ice cream, cigarettes and the misery she can cause around her.
The director Rebecca Frecknall has put this play on a few times now – this production began life at the Almeida and she has staged it elsewhere, too, over the years – and, over time, it has become perhaps a little too stylised for its own good. I am not sure the seven upright pianos against a stone wall make for such a great set, and the musical accompaniment – while moody – isn’t, in all the circumstances, that necessary.
What makes this production is the acting and it’s Ferran – a young actress of amazing promise – who makes this exceptional, spellbinding theatre. She doesn’t so much play the character as inhabit it. I won’t easily forget how she wails – with that hauntingly Modiglianic look – about how her youth has been stolen away from her.
At the end of the play, she is reunited fleetingly with John who inevitably, perhaps, is set to marry another woman. She asks him that damn question again: ‘Are you happy?’ He says he is, but it is never, of course, that simple.