Ripping Up the Rule Book on the London Stage

Ripping Up the Rule Book on the London Stage

Too much fun, arguably: Some of the carrying-on could be trimmed. (Beverly Rudd’s beleaguered waitress, Beryl, in particular, needs reining in.) Still, only a killjoy wouldn’t be carried away. When a piano is brought onstage and the Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto so fondly remembered from the movie strikes up, the spirits soar, even if the characters by that point are firmly planted back on the ground.


Patsy Ferran in “Summer and Smoke,” a study in female entrapment and loneliness.

Marc Brenner

There’s no Rachmaninoff across town at the Almeida Theater production of “Summer and Smoke,” but there are pianos aplenty — nine of them arrayed crescent-style around the designer Tom Scutt’s evocatively bare set and played by members of the company throughout the show. This revival of Tennessee Williams’s 1948 play wants audiences to experience its riven emotional landscape in the purest possible form, fueled by sound but unencumbered by scenery. (The production finishes on Saturday.)

“Summer and Smoke” announces its little-known director, Rebecca Frecknall, as an audacious talent who isn’t afraid to throw out the rule book. She is following the lead of such Almeida colleagues as Robert Icke and Rupert Goold, who have pursued a similarly freewheeling path. At the Almeida, the classics are ripe for reinvention, and rarely look or sound as they have before.

When the leading lady Patsy Ferran steps toward a microphone in the opening moments — a stage direction not found in Williams’s script — you might feel as if you have stumbled into the latest avant-garde project from New York’s Wooster Group, which also uses amplification to illuminate characters’ private thoughts, in a sort of aurally enhanced stage whisper.

But whereas this device is often intended to distance the spectator from the action, Ms. Frecknall achieves the opposite effect. In an instant, we are drawn into the variably fragile and frantic psyche of Alma Winemiller (Ms. Ferran). Here is someone given to impulse and intuition who, like the production in which she finds herself, won’t be kept in check.

Alma, we’re informed, is “Spanish for soul,” which may account for the stirrings that this minister’s daughter feels for John Buchanan (Matthew Needham, excellent), the heavy-drinking doctor’s son who lives next door. By turns attentive and cruel, John engages with Alma only to push her away, and Ms. Ferran’s saucer-eyed trembling hints at the character’s scarcely contained hysteria.

Written a year after “A Streetcar Named Desire,” and doomed to exist in its shadow, “Summer and Smoke” offers a smaller-scale study in female entrapment and loneliness. And it concludes with an unexpected eleventh-hour encounter of which Blanche DuBois would have surely approved.

The supporting cast includes one actor (Forbes Masson) playing both the play’s two fathers, and Anjana Vasan in a quartet of roles as part of the gently absurdist landscape that Ms. Frecknall, the director, favors. Here, the fast-rising Ms. Ferran — first admired on the London stage as the klutzy maid in a starry Coward staging of “Blithe Spirit” in 2014 — is all open-faced gawkiness: a child-woman teetering on the abyss of tragedy.

Those onstage pianos are there, meanwhile, to lend musical counterpoint or contrast to events that unfold with a deliberate lack of place and only minimal props; there’s a doorbell, for instance, but no door. Instead, Ms. Frecknall finds in this lesser-known work by Williams a lacerating tone poem that, like its rapture-prone heroine, has no time for the literal as it hurtles tenderly, tentatively toward love.

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