Patsy Ferran won various prestigious new acting talent awards a few years ago. Here, it is easy to see why. Ferran captivates from the second she first appears sobbing and choking into a microphone as the fiendishly complex lead in director Rebecca Frecknall's rare outing for Tennessee Williams' beguiling, poetic exploration of love, desire, repression and pill-popping.
Even leaving aside the Mississippi accents - which perhaps partly explain why British theatres have inexplicably avoided this great play for most of the past seventy years - her character, Alma, is tricky to pull off convincingly. Ferran displays extraordinary range to show us a sickly, nervous, angelic Deep South pastor's daughter who can also be a chair-throwing man-eater. Astonishingly, she is often able to convey the mass of contradictory emotions swirling around Alma at the same time. Though the play is notionally about Alma's clear-cut development from one summer to the next, we never know quite what to make of her, thanks to Ferran's hauntingly sensitive, tightly coiled portrayal.
Alma's love-interest, Dr John (Matthew Needham), refers to her "doppelganger," and Ferran rises to the challenge of playing Alma's conflicting personalities. She is the show-stealer by some distance, which is a shame in a way because her supporting, mostly ensemble cast are excellent too, though it is Ferran who will grab the headlines. Needham as the male lead is suitably magnetic and is able to communicate the right amount of frustrated passion. He also drips snot admirably during one heart-wrenching sobbing scene. Anjana Vasan lightens the mood with impressive comic turns as Alma's love rivals, while Nancy Crane is a funny and tragic mad/dotty/evil (take your pick) malignant mother who gorges on ice cream while chain-smoking.
The play takes place in Glorious Hill, Mississippi in the early twentieth century. Designer Tom Scutt has given London's theatre audiences yet another, well, glorious set to enjoy. Nine upright pianos form a semi-circle around the back of the stage. If Alma is, at times, an "angel" then the pleasing piano music sometimes sounds heavenly. In more ominous moments, the pianos' deliberately cacophonous din augments the devilish and occasionally outright demonic drama played out before us.
Time, or rather timing, is the key to Summer and Smoke, and provides the ironic joke about Alma and Dr John's ultimate plight. Apart from the pianos, Scutt's set is mostly bare although its golden-hued lighting (superbly lit by Lee Curran) conjures Mississippi's dusty heat and provides a timeless aura. This is perfect for Tennessee Williams' grand philosophical themes which emerge from human dramas in the context of his play's refrain: eternity.