Review: Suddenly Last Summer

Joe Richards 1 March 2017

Suddenly, Last Summer is perhaps Tennessee Williams’ most disturbing play. All of his traditional concerns are present in this one-act drama, influenced as ever by his own life: mental health; lobotomisation; repressed homosexuality. What sets this play apart from his others is its gruesome climax, a theatrical tour de force which is poetical, lyrical and horrific in equal measure. The play is a bold choice for the Fletcher Players’ freshers show, and unfortunately the company of this production do not always do Williams’ work justice.

The play takes place in the garden of Louisiana matriarch Mrs Venable’s recently deceased son, Sebastian. The set is appropriately minimalist, the garden simply suggested by Ed Bankes’ well-designed projections on the back walls of the Corpus Playroom, which suggest both an abstract beauty as well as a mood of grim repression. Design in general is simplistic, yet strong, with lighting from David Horvatho Franco and sound design used effectively to isolate Catherine, Mrs Venable’s mentally ill niece and the last person to see Sebastian alive, in her last speech.

As the play opens and Mrs Venable (Maya Achan) and Dr Sugar (Roshan Rupri) enter, the audience notices director Zoe Black’s surprising decision to have all the actors use British accents, rather than the traditional Louisianan. Though this is of course preferable to a set of uneven and mismatched attempts at this tricky accent, you can’t help but feel that the play, and the delivery of Williams’ language, loses much of its power when delivered as if we were in the Home Counties, rather than the Deep South.

The one exception to this is in Maya Achan, who delivers an extremely memorable performance as Mrs Venable. In ditching the Southern drawl, Achan instead chooses a prim RP. Alongside her wonderfully controlled physicality which suggests a seething anger beneath her matriarchal dignity, this creates a powerful effect of repressed emotion, something that, had it been consistent across the cast, could have made the decision to move the play’s setting extremely worthwhile.

Whilst Achan’s performance stood out amongst the cast, there were also reasonably strong performances from Isabella Oreffo as Mrs Holly, Catherine’s mother, who captures well the confusion and discomfort the character feels over the affair, and to an extent from Phoebe Segal as Catherine herself, who has a strong sense of the trauma of Catherine’s experience, though her performance does at times verge on garbling.

Indeed, language is a consistent issue for this production. In a work as poetic as this, it is a shame that actors rush through their lines, instead of savouring the rich lyricism of Williams’ work; much of the power of the ending is lost this way, simply because there is no time for it to build up given the breakneck speed we have rushed through the preceding scene. There are almost no pauses in this production, neither between nor within lines, and this does give the impression that actors have not really considered what they’re saying, as well as lessening the dramatic impact on the audience. Had the direction embraced the language of the play a little more and resolved some of these pacing issues, performances such as Segal’s may have really shone.

As it is, the force of the ending is largely lost in this production, and the whole thing comes to feel rather overacted. This is a shame, as performances as strong as Achan’s, when coupled with this poetic and wonderful play, could have made for a compelling and haunting outing for these freshers. As it is, the whole thing lacks punch and falls rather flat.