Summer and Smoke, Duke of York’s Theatre, St Martin’s Lane, London WC2

Summer and Smoke

Summer and Smoke had a successful run at the Almeida theatre earlier in the year. The reviews at the time were ecstatic but tickets were impossible to get, so it was great news to hear that it had been given a West End transfer. When it was first produced, in 1948, it was the follow up to “A Streetcar Named Desire” but it did not match that play’s success. There have been revivals in the intervening years, but the only successful one has been the off Broadway version, with Geraldine Page as Alma, that was eventually made into the film with Laurence Harvey as John. Geraldine Page received an Oscar nomination for that part.

The set is a bare brick wall with seven pianos set in a semi circle facing it. These are played at the start, finish and at dramatic moments through the play. The rest of the stage is basically empty, save a few chairs brought on and removed as they are needed. The setting is the American deep south in the early 20th Century, classic Tennessee Williams territory. The story is too, a tale of unrequited love struggling against unbridled lust, set in a small American town in the sweltering heat of summer’s sultry climate.

Director, Rebecca Frecknall, has taken the decision to make this production revolve totally around Alma Winemiller. She is almost always on stage and on the rare occasions when she is not central, we are thinking about how this will affect her state of mind. This is a bold directing decision, but perfectly vindicated by Patsy Ferran’s performance as Alma. She is phenomenal, it is a career defining role and she drags us through every high and low. One of the toughest things for an actor to do is bring the audience with them when they have a life changing epiphany which totally reverses their world view, Patsy Ferran does this remarkably well, and if she does not win awards for her acting in this play, then I cannot wait to see the performance that beats it.

The rest of the cast are excellent too and provide brilliant support. There are a couple of moments where music is used to heighten the drama. Both of these are chillingly good. Anjana Vasan has a beautiful blues voice, when she sings in the casino. The slow motion sequence during the shooting, which I think used a Portishead track, has an ethereal, poetic quality that raises the production to a more abstract, surreal vision than we are used to seeing in a Tennessee Williams play, and this worked very well.

I enjoyed this production, it was brave enough to approach Tennessee Williams in a more lyrical manner than usual, the added musical dimension, although lightly used was very effective and it will endure in the memory for the amazing performance of Patsy Ferran in the leading role.

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Hamlet, Harold Pinter Theatre, London,

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Hamlet is a play that has been done so many times in London over the last few years, it seems to be the role that every major star wants to do, to prove their worth. Well, this version, directed by Robert Icke and starring Andrew Scott is, without doubt, the best of them.  The direction is wonderful, it makes the play feel current and relevant to today. I love the use of technology; the ramparts on video cameras, the war coverage on a 24hour news station,  the paparazzi at the wedding.

Andrew Scott is a fantastic Hamlet, hurt, sarcastic and sardonic, he speaks every line as though he is having difficulty putting the depth of his feelings into words. The words are 17th century but his delivery of them is 21st century psychoanalytical. The modern setting brings out humour, in his lines, that was previously hidden and it makes his cruelty towards Ophelia and his mother, all the more harsh.

Derbhle Crotty plays Gertrude, as a worried caring mother, a bit frivolous and taken in by the attentions of her late husbands brother. I liked the chime in accent between her and Hamlet, it emphasised their bond and highlighted his reason for feeling betrayed by her.  Angus Wright is wonderful as Claudius. In this production he is a modern Machiavelli, concerned with approval ratings and how the public would feel if he prosecuted Hamlet for the death of Polonius. He is the ultimate politician king, bland and reasonable while plotting death. It makes one realise how little politics has changed through the centuries.

Peter Wight is great as Polonius, usually played for laughs, but here he is a family man, desperately trying to enhance the lives of his children by means of his diplomacy. The affection between Laertes, Polonius and Ophelia is underlined in this production, and the sense of loss is deeper because of it. David Icke is not afraid to take risks, I am not sure about the Bob Dylan songs, bringing 1960s music into such an up to the minute setting jarred a little, but Rosencrantz and Guildenstern work very well as a romantically involved couple and why wouldn’t one of them be female. I am looking forward to the Tom Stoppard update.

The finale is deliberate, each character allowed their own time. Horatio is solicited to tell the tale, but it has all been recorded on video, so it will be available for the news channels to package and present, from all points of view, for years to come….

This is a fantastic production, it has a month left to play, London theatre at its very best.