‘Summer and Smoke’ review

Theatre, Drama
5 out of 5 stars
4 out of 5 stars
(11user reviews)
 (© Marc Brenner)
© Marc Brenner Matthew Needham (John Buchanan and Patsy Ferran (Alma)
 (© Marc Brenner)
© Marc Brenner Matthew Needham (John Buchanan) and Patsy Ferran (Alma)
 (© Marc Brenner)
© Marc Brenner Matthew Needham (John Buchanan) and Patsy Ferran (Alma)
 (© Marc Brenner)
© Marc Brenner Patsy Ferran (Alma)
 (© Marc Brenner)
© Marc Brenner Patsy Ferran (Alma)

Time Out says

5 out of 5 stars

Patsy Ferran gives an astonishing performance as the Almeida’s Tennessee Williams revival hits the West End

Patsy Ferran is just astonishingly good in this welcome West End transfer of the Almeida Theatre’s acclaimed revival of Tennessee Williams’s ‘Summer and Smoke’. From when we encounter her, caught in darkness, convulsing uncontrollably in an unsparing spotlight, she effortlessly holds the stage.

Ferran is Alma Winemiller, a minister’s daughter and singing teacher. As she cares for her mother, who has suffered a breakdown, and takes care of the family home, it’s clear she has become trapped by expectations and responsibilities. She’s nervy and on edge, prone to anxiety attacks.

The play centres on Alma’s moth-like attraction to John Buchanan (Matthew Needham). He’s a resentful, angry man, a trainee doctor who tries to drown out his fears in booze and sex, while being drawn to Alma. Meanwhile, their small Mississippi town seethes in the summer months.

The relationship between Alma and John is unbearable to watch at times. Still, Needham and Ferran exert a magnetic pull on our attention as they collide. Director Rebecca Frecknall strips it down to its painful essentials, rejecting the trend of some Williams revivals which have cast the women as neurotics and eroticised the malice of his men.

Here, the characters are complicated and messy. A restless Needham slides into positions around the stage like stations en route to Alma’s seduction. He’s a darkening bruise of a boy, with charm and insecurity flicking into cruel, gaslighting behaviour. It’s a gripping, often ugly performance.

What Frecknall draws out is Alma’s pitiless position in a sideways-watching society that demands women be angels but delights in casting them out to the fringes, gleefully turning them into gossipy tales if they dare to act like people. It’s heaven or hell, with nothing allowed in between.

Ferran plays this out across her entire body. The conflict between her shrilly moralistic upbringing and her impulses seems to coil up in the braced tension of everything she does. But Alma is never easily reduced to victim status. Ferran finds the humour in small flashes of snobbery and conveys her strength and intelligence even as John belittles her.

The rest of the ensemble cast relish the slow, treacly, sometimes poisonous poetry of Williams’s prose. It’s the perfect backdrop for a battle between John’s bleak world view – that sex is just the grind of two bodies and there’s no room for a soul in human anatomy – and Alma’s belief in more.

Frecknall ends this debate on an ambiguous note. But her production, a triumph of storytelling and atmosphere, makes its own point. Designer Tom Scutt’s spare, beautiful set is a semi-circle of seven pianos, their workings exposed. The cast play these pianos and sing. It’s often spine-tingling. Against this backdrop, Frecknall amply demonstrates how everything is more than a simple sum of its parts.

By: Tom Wicker



Users say (11)

4 out of 5 stars

Average User Rating

4.4 / 5

Rating Breakdown

  • 5 star:6
  • 4 star:3
  • 3 star:2
  • 2 star:0
  • 1 star:0
6 people listening

Summer and Smoke is one of the most incredible pieces of theatre I have seen. Set in the hazy summers of small town America it centres on the unrequited love between prissy, neurotic, ministers daughter Alma and bad boy neighbor and Drs son John.

Alma, player by Patsy Ferran, is on stage almost constantly. Her performance is absolutely mesmerising, she gives everything to it.

Staging is beautiful, understated, supporting the story. The cast are also excellent but this show is owned by Patsy.


A Tennessee Williams play that I hadn’t necessarily heard of before but left the theatre with a new appreciation of his work. A visually creative masterpiece of a play, I was enamoured with all aspects of it from the set to the acting and smouldering tension and chemistry between the two protagonists. Given that it has a small cast the talent is remarkable, especially from Alma who recreates the angst, heartache and teenage longing for John in the only way young love can. I loved the simplicity of the set and use of music for the flow of characters on and off stage. I was spellbound for the evening and can’t recommend this play enough!


This show is not just a summer fling!

This production has everything I love theatre for:

The play is wonderfully written. I knew Tenessee Williams is one of the greatest, but I was surprised (in a good way) how sensitively he could tell this story about a young girl and her platonic love. The characters were complex and the story line kept me on the edge of my seat.

The performers were great especially Patsy Ferran. Her acting was phenomenal: she was real, she was relateable, she was one with Alma. I'm sure we are going to hear her name more in the future!

The set design was breathtaking and clever: they used old pianos which contibuted to a special atmosphere.

Overall this show was one of the biggest theatre experiences of my life, I would 100% recommend watching it.


A beautiful piece of theatre with an incredible lead in Patsy Ferran, she encapsulates the character of anxious, overzealous Alma perfectly, only having to twitch and the audience were in stitches. There were some really poignant moments in this piece that stood out for me, overall I did find it a tad too long. The themes are relate-able, I enjoyed the use of the same actor to play both the two leads' father and the clever use of the mostly bare set, which didn't need bells and whistles to make it magical. 


I’d heard of Tennessee Williams but this was my first time seeing one of his plays on the stage. The story is based on what I would say is unrequited love, the type that goes on for a lot longer than it should due to little glimmers of hope. We’ve all been there, in some shape or form. This relatability takes you on an emotional journey, and you feel all the joys and pain along the way. I laughed and cried, and the ending was just perfect and not what I expected. The acting was just brilliant, and the added piano pieces throughout pulled so many of the emotions together making it even more beautiful. I highly recommend going on the Summer and Smoke journey, you won’t be disappointed.


Summer and Smoke takes you on a journey centred around Alma’s repressed affection towards her neighbour John. Incredible performances by both Patsy Feran and Mathew Needham who’s magnetic pull to each other as John and Alma kept the audience involved. The hauntingly beautiful melodies played on the pianos lining the stage along with the subtle smell of cigarette smoke that drifted out into the audience made you feel more engulfed in the story. I enjoyed this play however it was one that you had to really listen to carefully to capture the hidden undertones and I was left feeling slightly confused by the ambiguous final scene.


Summer and Smoke is a beautiful, compelling piece of theatre.

The central performance from Patsy Ferran was mesmerising, and perfectly contrasted by Matthew Needham's laconic, slouching presence: I was completely entranced by their chemistry. The stage design was beautiful, as was the sound and music design - the whole thing looked and sounded gorgeous.

The run is limited, but if you can physically get there it's the perfect remedy to the chill outside. The whole show is a sultry, passionate love story, and I completely recommend it!


I absolutely loved Summer and Smoke. I'll be honest, the first few minutes I was convinced I was going to hate it, but it won me over very quickly. Its emotional, passionate, exciting, and sad. Throughout the play, characters not in the scene play on pianos in the shadowy background. Actors play multiple characters, swapping between them seamlessly and obviously (due to the great acting) so that it doesn't get confusing. Patsy Ferran who plays Alma is absolutely amazing and she really made this play for me! I've already recommended it to friends and I only saw it last night! 

I haven’t seen a play I’ve enjoyed this much in ages! I was drawn in after the first few minutes. Patsy Ferran as Alma absolutely steals the show as she struggles with her perceived obligation and her desire for the boy next door (Matthew Needham). Although the play is set in the early 1900’s it transcends to a place that felt timeless. One of Williams lesser known plays is definitely one to see.

4 1/2 stars for me!


Summer and Smoke is a tense 2 1/2 hours packed with raw sensuality.

Against a sparse backdrop of sand and pianos, this story of repressed passion in early 20th century Tennessee captures a sexual tension that is rarely seen on stage.

Patsy Ferran is exceptional as Alma - the repressed Vicar’s daughter whose desires are at odds with her beliefs and upbringing. John, the object of her affection, is played with depth, subtlety and sheer desirability by Matthew Needham.

Meanwhile, the supporting cast are superb, whilst their portrayal of multiple roles - and discordant notes on the piano - adds to the claustrophobic staging.

There are downsides too. The play is overly long, dragging slightly at times, yet the final act feels rushed. The source material isn’t perfect, and may leave you longing for more - in particular more closure.

Regardless, it’s bewitching, and one of the best things I’ve seen in this or any year.


Alma and John know each other from childhood, living next door. She’s the typical minister daughter, too dutiful, too righteous for her own good. Too nervous and scared of what life might bring (even if curious). John is reckless, not interested in anything enough to take it seriously, even with a promising future brought from his doctor father. He’s left for university and most of the play happens when he’s back after a while.The setting, as most Almeida productions, is stunning, even if really simple. Alma is played as someone who’s about to have a panic attack the whole time; it pulls you to the nervousness and urgency she seems to be embody, but also makes it difficult not just feel pity and not really care. The acting is really good, for all characters, and you get invested in Alma’s desires and willingness (if incapable) to act, but it’s a long play, and after a while it just gets too much. I think I’ll never regret watching anything playing at the Almeida, but I wouldn’t recommend this play for someone who’s not familiar with this play (as in, know what they are coming for)...

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