Not one of his best plays, derided by one critic as “Williams-lite” and pulled after a brief run on Broadway in 1946, Summer and Smoke is in some ways a brave choice for a four-month run in an ultra-competitive West End. Sticking former Bond girl, 27-year-old Rosamund Pike, in the lead role is clearly part of a strategy to bring in desperate star hunters. Sandwiched between the twin gods of Cabaret and the RSC’s Canterbury Tales, though, it’s certainly going to be a hard-won battle for the Yankee dollar on Shaftesbury Avenue this Christmas.
Regardless, something has to be very special to justify a 42 price tag for two hours’ entertainment, and the show’s producers have brought in the big guns to try and make this production as sumptuous and evocative as possible. Adrian Noble, former Artistic Director of the RSC, tops a list of some of the most talented crew working in the West End and they have certainly gone to town on this small play. The effort has been rewarded with a beautiful piece of theatre – although one cannot help but feel that the overall result is to make a hurricane of a light breeze.
The play, set in rural Mississippi, centres on Alma (Pike), a spinster whose father is a reverend, and the boy she adored as a child, John Buchanan (Chris Carmack), who has returned a doctor, and a playboy, from urbane Boston, Massachusetts. Alma still has a crush on John, but is scathing of his behaviour and desperate to drag him away from casinos, alcohol and womanising, and towards asceticism. John, only interested in the flesh and not the soul, soon finds himself engaged to the casino owner’s daughter – and when Alma alerts John’s travelling father to the wanton behaviour occurring under his own roof, he returns, with tragic consequences for all.
Williams, as you would expect, gives us character, dialogue and sexual tension to die for, and hearing his words on stage like this, in a seldom revived play, is like discovering a Beatles album you didn’t know existed. He is also a master of plotting, and while the second act could have done with some trimming, every drop of language is pure gold and worth the long sitting in the tiny Apollo seats. It is also thematically as rich as a plum cake, with plenty of enormous physical metaphors, such as the statue of the angel engraved Eternity that literally towers over proceedings, as well as more subtle verbal ones. There is much to digest on the subject of a passion repressed, lives wasted, love lost and the good old battle of the soul and the body.
As well as the authentic design – which makes good use of the space and evokes how far the characters are trapped in their surroundings and burned by the southern sun – the performances are, with few exceptions, top notch. Pike initially appears to be all accent, but once she stops her monotone delivery and begins acting out her demons, she is spellbinding. Her foil is less convincingly written, but is brought to life with vigour by Carmack, and the only mistake made in the direction is removing the venom from Alma’s mother’s words, played, wrongly I feel, as a grinning geriatric, which is dramatically insufficient to make Alma feel trapped by her mother’s incapacity, and not enough to provoke her frustrated anger.
It is a privilege to see such a meaty work with such a strong cast done so grandly – and I guess that doesn’t come cheap. For those who want the soul-stirring passion of drama well done, something even the movies seem incapable of nowadays, this show is a destination. There may not be, in Williams terms, a whole lot of meat on the bone, but what there is is damned tasty.