Saturday 10 March 2018

Summer and Smoke at the Almeida, or, A Surfeit of Pianos

Note: This is a review of the matinee on Saturday 3rd March 2018. The press night took place later that week.

This is the second Tennessee Williams production recently that adopts the approach of divorcing the play from its setting. Stronger central performances mean this works a bit better than last year's Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. But in the end the approach of director Rebecca Frecknall and designer Tom Scutt's remains flawed.

The play appears, after a bit of Google digging, to have been originally set in pre-World War One Mississippi (it's pretty impossible on the basis of this production to determine when Frecknall has set it). We follow the repressed preacher's daughter Alma Winemiller (Patsy Ferran) in her longing for the wastrel son of the doctor, John Buchanan (Matthew Needham). The best of the afternoon is to be found in their performances. Ferran especially is fascinating to watch, and when allowed to take the subtle approach, totally convincing. Needham doesn't always quite transcend the caricature aspects of Williams's writing, but also has great presence.

The problem is the production in which they are situated. I've nothing, in principle, against a nearly bare stage – though I do think it's a problem when the text is often so concrete about location so generating a persistent sense of conflict with the design. The bigger issue here is the only substantial piece of set – a semi-circle of upright pianos round the back of the stage from which the cast deliver Angus MacRae's intrusive, overblown score. There's no denying some of this is clever – the firework or gulf wind effects for example. But, too often, the crescendoing or threatening pianos served to undermine my belief in the action going on in front of them. The play is dangerously close to melodrama anyway – the score keeps tipping it over into it, and thus losing the emotional punch that Ferran's performance would possess if left alone.

The pianos also caused, for me, a periodic problem of suspension of disbelief. Ferran would draw me in by her performance and then my eyes would catch sight of some of the pianos and I'd start wondering again what on earth they were doing there and where in fact we were supposed to be.
Frecknall also mishandles Alma's hysteria, right from the outset, with annoying directorial tricks which are currently in vogue. Ferran delivering her whole first scene into a microphone never quite convinces. More troubling is the resort in the character's most hysterical moment to having her throw chairs around the stage – this is a worn out device and as so often subtler would have been stronger.

The treatment of race is also problematic. While the setting has divorced itself from the period of the play, the text and accents have not. If you're going to make even a slight connection with the racist Deep South of this era you have to address race – you can't just have what by and large appears to be colour blind casting pass by without comment.

The frustration of this show is that Frecknall clearly has potential – she's prepared to risk silences, to focus on moments of small movement and physical interaction. Blessed with an actress of Ferran's talent, I wish Frecknall had trusted more to that approach and left the gimmicks out.

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