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Review: Summer and Smoke

James Lamming is delighted by the best show he has seen in Oxford

While the plot of Tennessee Williams’ Summer and Smoke follows a spiritual and romantic relationship which never quite blossoms, there can be no doubt that this student production flowered sensationally. The two-act play, which revolves around the lives of Alma Winemiller (Natalie Lauren) and John Buchanan Jr. (Leo Danczak), tenderly traces their complex romance from first kiss to final heartbreak, all in a tricky Southern drawl. Through excellent acting and subtly imaginative production, this performance movingly captures the human emotions involved at every stage of any human relationship.

Set against the backdrop of turn-of-the-century Mississippi, director Aimée Kwan cleverly brings the era’s social tensions to the forefront of the play by having actors perform two roles; Saul Lowndes-Britton does double service as both Alma’s father, a puritanical preacher who disapproves of the less religious and more scientifically minded Buchanan, and Gonzales, the Mexican owner of a casino. Lowndes-Britton does a brilliant job of completely changing both accent and mannerisms to increase the contrast between two of the play’s key father figures. Unfortunately, the same trick does not quite work in the case of Rosa, Gonzalez’s seductive Mexican daughter, and Nellie, a scatter-brained yet charming music pupil; although each role was well acted by Olivia White, at the end Williams’ play has the characters become too similar to allow one person to act both.

Both the studio and the set are masterfully chosen by Kwan and set designed Sarah Davies. Within the intimate black box confines of the Burton-Taylor studio, the audience sits just touching distance from Alma and John, mirroring perfectly the suffocating small town of Glorious Hill, where local gossip Mrs Bassett (the excellent and amusing Louie Iselin) seems to be everywhere and know everything. The set is equally inspired; the sparse medical office of Buchanan on the left is separated only from the Winemillers’ more traditional American parlour by a flimsy piece of panelling. With the interior of both houses always visible, Kwan often has two conflicting scenes going on independently of one another. My only complaint about the set is that it rarely reflects the oppressive heat and summer of the play’s title; Tennessee Williams explicitly specified that “there must be a great expanse of sky so that the entire action of the play takes place against it” and that “during the day the sky should be a pure and intense blue”.

However, the quality of the acting is universally superb. El Port’s noteworthy portrayal of a mentally ill preacher’s wife was a fine mix of amusing and disturbing, while both Hugh Tappin and Tommy Peet give very solid performances considering they are each required to act three different roles during the play. Leo Danczak is a superbly versatile male lead who manages his character’s alarmingly swift character development with both aplomb and maturity. However, it is are doubt Natalie Lauren who steals the show; her stuttering mannerisms and nervous delivery were so realistic that I cannot tell when she really fluffs her lines and when she is merely a far better actress than I am a critic. During one of the play’s most dramatic moments between Buchanan and Rosa Gonzalez, my eyes are instead drawn to the unlit Lauren holding back tears of heartbreak; if you go, it is well worth watching out for this incredible piece of acting. Overall, despite the occasional confusion over cast members playing multiple roles and a slightly loose interpretation of Williams’ set, Summer and Smoke is far and away the best production I have seen at Oxford.

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