A beautiful but bizarre show, beset by ‘great ideas’: Summer and Smoke reviewed

24 March 2018

9:00 AM

24 March 2018

9:00 AM

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. A wise producer would have ditched the high-concept pianos in return for two more actors. But anyone who knows and likes this play will find plenty to enjoy here. Relish in particular the twitchy fragile brilliance of Patsy Ferran as Alma. And Matthew Needham gives a performance that’s hard to stop watching. Needham’s face is so sharp, cruel and inscrutable that he’d be an asset to any production, as a hero or a villain. Movies beckon.

Will Self’s novel Great Apes, published in 1997, has been skilfully and wittily updated by Patrick Marmion. The book’s debt to Kafka is obvious from the opening gesture. Yuppie artist Simon Dykes wakes up to find that his girlfriend has turned into a chimpanzee. Terrified, Simon rushes from the house but is captured by paramedics who sedate him and lock him up in a hospital. The paramedics are chimps as well. So is everyone else. Simon learns that he’s the only free human being left on earth. Chimps rule the world. A few leftover humans are held in zoos and they’re occasionally allowed out to make TV adverts for PG Tips. Everyone in history, we learn, was a chimp, including Shakespeare, who wrote the famous line ‘an arse by any other name would smell as sweet.’

To create this upside-down world in a novel is easy but to make it believable on stage represents a huge challenge. The actors, directed by Oscar Pearce, carry it off with subtlety and intelligence. Will Self’s characters tend to be high-achievers, doctors, artists, financiers and journalists, and here they’re required to retain the habits of untamed primates. They tumble about in a semi-squatting position; they make ooh-ah noises on greeting and parting; they groom one another obsessively; they study each other’s posteriors with fanatical curiosity; and they often copulate in public. That’s how it is in monkey world: random fornication between casual acquaintances is regarded as vital to social cohesion.

Simon’s mission is to learn to cope with this crazy universe. Early on, he attempts to have sex in public with his girlfriend, who is still a chimpanzee. ‘I’m embarrassed to admit I enjoyed it,’ he pants with relief. Because the show raises questions about identity and about the boundaries between destiny and personal choice, it feels surprisingly up-to-date. My only quibble with this excellent production is that no one eats a banana.

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