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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Summer and Smoke
Southwark Playhouse   Summer 2012

One of Tennessee Williams' most delicate and fragile plays is sensitively displayed in this imaginative production that brings out all its charm while illuminating some corners more clearly than I've ever seen them before. 

In a Southern American town (of course), a minister's daughter and the young doctor next door are attracted to each other, but she lives only on the spiritual realm while he is inclined to cater to his more earthly appetites. With a sad irony they each win the other over, so that they switch positions and end the play as far apart as they were before. 

It's almost an Aesop fable, and in the wrong hands could seem overly schematic or, worse, crass and vulgar. But director Rebecca Frecknall and her cast treat it with respect and delicacy, making its human story touch us while its ideas matter to us, and also evoking the world in which such a fable can be acted out. 

On Lorna Killin's almost bare set, with a few bits of furniture and the outlines of doors and windows moved about with choreographic grace to create different spaces, we get the sense of a world stripped down to its essences, one that is almost symbolic already, so that Williams' signature symbolism is right at home. 

Four of the six actors not only double and redouble roles to play Everyone Else, but also move the sets around, provide sound effects and, most significantly, create an ever-present chorus of onlookers to generate the claustrophobic sense of a small town in which there are no private lives. 

Kate Lamb captures Alma's near-hysterical nervous energy from the start, and takes a while to show us that it comes from repressed passions; while at first I missed the fragility of a Laura or Blanche, Lamb convinced me this woman must be stronger than she seems to make the journey she does. 

John is a simpler character, less fully conceived by the playwright (who always had more empathy for his women), and Curran McKay's main task is to keep him sympathetic even as the play sets him opposite the heroine. McKay lets us see the man's hunger for what Alma represents to him even as he's arguing against it, and the unhappiness that sours his attempts at debauchery. 

Very strong support, both in creating a string of instant characterisations and in sustaining the mood, is provided by Sarah-Jayne Butler, William Donaldson, Jack Fishburn and especially Jenna Smith. 

And for those who know the play, I invite you to wait for the very final scene, which director Frecknall gives a reading so fresh and audacious that it expands and envelops the whole play with its warmth and insight.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review -  Summer and Smoke - Southwark Playhouse 2012 

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