Adrian Noble’s production of Tennessee Williams’s lesser known play, Summer And Smoke, comes to the West End following a short run in Nottingham. English actress Rosamund Pike plays the uptight Southern belle secretly in love with her childhood friend John, whose chiselled jaw and good looks belong to American actor Chris Carmack. Caroline Bishop went to the first night at the Apollo to find out if they ever get it together…
You’ve got to feel sorry for Miss Alma. She’s stuck in the Deep South in 1916 with a selfish, deluded mother and a vicar for a father, at a time when a young woman can be a brazen hussy or a pious spinster, but nothing in between.
Miss Alma (Rosamund Pike) has chosen the latter option, despite her intense feelings for her next door neighbour, the charasmatic, good looking John (Chris Carmack) who wears his sexuality on his sleeve. Alma’s sexual feelings are repressed, and her lack of experience means she magnifies any brief contact with John into a full blown love affair, pinning all her hopes for happiness on him. Any perceived knock-back has her reaching for the sleeping pills to quell her heart palpitations. John, meanwhile, has self-destructive demons of his own – he uses the local goodtime girl for sex but can’t find in her the emotional nurturing that Alma could provide him, if only he could see it.
Pike’s Alma is prim and self-controlled in her day to day life, playing mother to her own mother, who has retreated from the world and taken her daughter’s youth away in the process. But behind the façade, which becomes increasingly transparent, the real Alma is an emotional young woman who has sexual desires like everyone else and can’t fight them, despite her idealistic notions that the soul is more important than the body. By the time she admits this to herself, and to John, it is too late – he can no longer think sexually about a woman he sees as his angel, and has chosen someone else. The tragic outcome of Williams’s story is inevitable, but entirely believable.
The repressed passion is made steamier still by the atmospheric design; fireworks are heard on 4 July, rain falls on stage, and the centrepiece is an austere stone angel, which comes to symbolise the chain around Alma’s neck. As Alma comes to terms with the fact that happiness, once tantalisingly in reach, has been snatched away, you hope that she’ll be alright, but know that she probably won’t be. Men, eh?