Theatre: A heartbreaking tale of unrequited love

Matthew Needham and Patsy Ferran in the elegiac Summer and Smoke

Tennessee Williams’s elegiac and heartbreaking Summer and Smoke, a story of loneliness and unrequited love, which premiered in 1948, is, in the light of his later work, unexpectedly gentle and delicate. Rebecca Frecknall’s clever production at Almeida Theatre is a rare and major revival.

A minister’s daughter has loved the boy next door since they were children. She is a product of 19th-century Puritanism; bound by the codes of behaviour expected of a refined young lady, and has grown up sexually repressed. She has artistic and intellectual interests. He is into drinking, gambling and harlotry. This allegorical drama, representing a conflict between body and soul, gets terrific performances from Patsy Ferran and Matthew Needham.

Ingmar Bergman’s semi-autobiographical masterpiece Fanny and Alexander, released in 1982, was his last film and is so accessible that it doesn’t feel like a Bergman film at all. The story chronicles a year (1910) in the lives of a Swedish family. A father dies unexpectedly and his widow (Catherine Walker) marries a brutal bishop (Kevin Doyle) who abuses her son (Misha Hadley). Max Weber’s three-hour and 30-minute production at The Old Vic has a tremendous sweep. Do not be put off by the length. Such is the excellence of script, direction, design and cast, headed by Penelope Wilton, that it doesn’t feel that long at all.

Gore Vidal’s The Best Man at Playhouse Theatre, starring Martin Shaw and Jeff Fahey, is a 1960 American period piece which doesn’t date. How far are the contestants in the race for presidency willing to go? Vidal, a political commentator, prolific novelist and essayist, famed for his epigrammatic wit, was born into a political family and stood for office twice. He wrote his drama with the authority of an insider who knew first hand about the mud-throwing, the corrupt deals and the blackmail that went on. Jack Shepherd as an ex-president steals every scene he is in.

Emma Rice’s adaptation and production of Noël Coward’s Brief Encounter at Empire Cinema is one of the best things she has ever done. Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard have been sent up rotten so often that to act Coward nowadays absolutely straight without any whiff of parody is incredibly difficult. Rice’s expressionistic approach uses film footage skilfully. Hugely enjoyable, it is never a travesty but something quite original. Jim Sturgeon and Isabel Pollen manage the Coward idiom deftly: the diction, the pre-war middle-class Englishness and the understatement is flawless.

In Charlotte Jones’s Humble Boy at Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond, a 35-year-old astrophysicist (Jonathan Broadbent) comes home for his father’s funeral to find that his mother (Belinda Lang) has quickly come to terms with his death and is about to marry her lover (Paul Bradley), a breezy vulgarian. The witty script and first-rate acting will give audiences a lot of pleasure. Selina Cadell, all aflutter, is hilarious.

WH Auden and Christopher Isherwood’s The Dog Beneath the Skin at Jermyn Street Theatre is a curiosity, a highbrow undergraduate frolic, written in verse in 1935, combining cartoonish satire, German cabaret and communist propaganda. It was a wake-up call to the rise of fascism in Germany and Britain and the censor didn’t like it one bit – and demanded cuts.