Review: Summer and Smoke @ Exeter Phoenix

My expectations of Dicebox’s production of Summer and Smoke by Tennessee Williams were high as it is renowned as a shiveringly beautiful tale of a doomed relationship. Although I felt some of Anastasia Bunce’s choices were problematic, I still thoroughly enjoyed this provoking performance, and feel the cast and crew deserve commendation.

Cat Blanchfield’s exquisite performance of Alma Winemiller is certainly worth mentioning. She couldn’t have been more perfectly cast, with Cat’s seemingly fragile form as delicate as Alma and her brilliant Southern-American drawl. She captured Alma’s tortured character with impressive precision right down to the last detail. Gulping down air and nervously fidgeting, Cat displayed a distracted disposition, which mimicked Alma’s disjointed psyche. This performance of the frail female figure was not quite met by Harry Douglas-Jones’s performance of the predatory male figure, John. Although their fast-paced interactions were exciting, I felt that the two actors failed to engage enough with each other, but rather, delivered their lines independent of one another. It is a shame that this partly disjointed dialogue took away from the deeply complex relationship between these tortured characters.

The play seemed to balance on the fine line between powerful tragedy and awkward comedy. First, there was a lack of cohesion between the cast and crew, particularly in the climactic murder scene, where, after the gunshot, there was a delayed reaction for the actor to fall and the cut to black out. This led to a comical disjunction in what was supposed to be a tragic death. Additionally, Bunce’s use of chairs to convey symbolic meaning was often overdone and failed to deliver her intention in using them at times. For example, it was not clear why Bunce had chosen to sit Cat and Cerys Lewis back to back as they were in dialogue with each other. This clichéd technique evoked an unintentional comical element to this scene which would not have been there otherwise. Despite this, I thought that Cerys Lewis played Nellie’s childish character very well with her energetic presence on stage providing a stark contrast to the overall bleak play. Equally impressive was Neha Shaji’s performance of Rosa Gonzales from her confident strut across the stage to her ever-present lurking at the edge as a shadow of Alma. However, I felt that there was a lack of awareness of racial stereotypes when casting Neha in this role, and Bunce needed to consider this element of character placement in the process.

I felt that the cramped space of the Voodoo room at the Exeter Phoenix made it difficult for the performance to reach its full potential. The small central stage often obstructed clear viewing of the action, making it difficult for the audience to follow the narrative. Unfortunately, some of the exchanges between the cast were overwhelmed by the music as the band were in close proximity to the audience in this constricted room. The music needed to be quieter so the dialogue could be heard over it and the tune was also often inconsistent with the action. However, I acknowledge this as no fault of the cast, and they coped with this disadvantage well with their large and lively movement across the stage.

I must also congratulate Molly Thatcher’s crafting of the costumes which absolutely portrayed the attire of 1900s small town citizens of Glorious Hill, Mississippi. Imitating William’s style, the colour of the costumes often symbolized various figures in the play. From Rosa’s promiscuous red dress to the angelic young man’s perfect white suit, the aesthetics embodied the characters which aided in narrative coherence.

Finally, when Alma and the young man swept from the stage, I was left dazzled, wondering whether to clap. This ending summarises my overall feeling as the play consistently left me expecting more. Despite this, Dicebox’s production carried off a thought-provoking interplay of maddened characters and eerily minimalist setting, and with a few amendments I feel it could have done justice to William’s tragedy.

Jess White 

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