Review – The Letter, Wyndham’s Theatre, London

Wednesday 23 May 2007

The Letter WEWAndrew is partial to a bit of letter writing.

On many an evening you can find him in his smoking jacket and writing mittens, slumped over his bureau, scratching out rambling and indignant missives to theatre owners complaining about their bar prices and the like. His special green ink on lavender notelets are a frightening and familiar sight to many in the business.

So Phil (whose sense of humour could best be described as single entendre) thought it would be very funny indeed to make Andrew go and see Somerset Maugham’s The Letter.

In truth Phil’s motive was somewhat disingenuous as – Coronation Street addict that he is – he had in actual fact been completely determined to take in this show after reading TheatreMonkey‘s summary of the plot:

Leslie Crosbie adopts the “Tracy Barlow” defence when accused of murdering a local playboy. Her loyal husband takes the “Deirdre” part by hiring the best lawyer he can to fight her case. The day before the trial, though, “Jason’s CCTV recording” er, no, sorry, a letter arrives… and the doubts begin to grow...

The Letter is a Bill Kenwright production and amazingly it once again stars his girlfriend Jenny Seagrove taking time out from voicing the Waitrose ads.

Seagrove has a reputation for being as wooden as the Cutty Sark (RIP) but Phil – if he could just get past her Michael Winner history (girlfriend from 1987-1993 according to this) – thinks she can be underrated. She almost impressed him in Night of the Iguana.

But unfortunately this evening was not one of those times. The words stolid, hammy and stilted echoed around both Whingers’ heads for much of the first act.

The Letter is the rather creaky story of Leslie Crosbie, the wife of a rubber plantation administrator in Malaya who kills a man on her porch and claims it was self-defence. But a letter she wrote to the deceased on the afternoon of the killing incriminates her and her lawyer Howard Joyce (Anthony Andrews) – acting on behalf of his old chum and Leslie’s husband (Andrew Charlson) – pays a huge sum to remove it from the mounting evidence against her.

Anthony Andrews plodded through his role wearing a permanent expression of, well, it’s just a permanent expression really. He’s an insult to knitted eyebrows. Andrew could have knitted something with more life, and probably has. In fact Andrew should have taken his knitting as it might have kept him awake.

There were several reasons for Andrew’s flight into the land of nod:

  1. The Wyndham’s seemed to have cranked up the heating to re-create the feel of the Malay tropics (indeed, this was the only atmosphere successfully created during the whole of the evening).
  2. Andrew had coincidentally watched the 1940 William Wyler film version starring Bette Davis a couple of months ago and if the plot is fresh in one’s mind, this is an incredibly boring experience.

After an hour and 20 minutes or so there was a blessed relief in the form of an interval. Unfortunately Andrew didn’t get much of a break as he was irresistibly drawn to the merchandising in the foyer, in particular to a sign on the concessions stall which boasted: “Posters £5”

He politely enquired; “What are the posters of?”

“Oh, I forgot to put them out,” the hapless lackey exclaimed (presumably there hadn’t been a great demand), “They are of the production”.

Phil, desperately clutching at straws, was reasonably gripped with the plot and dragged Andrew back after the interval but it was a huge mistake.

The second act opened in an opium den with a man miming the flute. But the Whingers were reminded of Jenny Seagrove’s appearance on some morning TV show in which she entreated:”You mustn’t miss the beginning!”

The reason is that something does happen at the beginning of the first act but after that it’s pretty much a play which consists of people telling you what happened either before the play started or during the interval; interminable exposition.

The highlight of the evening was the man sitting in front of the Whingers in row G of the stalls who spent the entire evening peering through opera glasses presumably in search of a glimmer of truth or emotion on Jenny Seagrove’s face

. The talking points after the show were:

  • OK, we have to judge each production on its own ambitions and merits, but the big question is “Why?” Why revive this play in the first place?
  • Why are the critics so in thrall to Mr Kenwright? We thought The Glass Menagerie was terrific but the critical receptions of Cabaret, Treats and this befuddled us totally.

We were particularly puzzled by the one word reviews posted outside: “Meticulous”, Michael Billington, The Guardian. Could the full sentence have read: “The racial stereotyping was meticulous”?

Apparently not. Billington – who was clearly paying closer attention than the Whingers – actually detected a gay subtext:

Why, you wonder, does the lawyer commit a criminal act to rescue a woman he palpably detests? In Anthony Andrews’s fastidious performance, the answer is perfectly clear: it is because he is in love with her husband. Andrews, a master of the arched eyebrow, suggests this through delicate touches, such as the way he dabs the dirt off the rough-hewn planter’s shirt. But when Andrews says “it’s absurd how fond I am of Bob”, he is the play’s real victim of passion.

Charles “I like everything” Spencer was predictably impressed (left) but even Nicholas de Jongh in the Evening Standard called it “an irresistible piece of comic hokum”.

Whatever. Judging by the luke-warm applause at the end the Whingers weren’t alone in their feelings. Seagrove wore a disgruntled expression at the curtain call, the most truthful she gave in what seemed like a very long evening but which was, in fact, only 2 hours 20 minutes.

Incidentally, there’s a marvellous Q&A with her on Theatre.com which asks the same questions we would have asked, but more politely. And you can read all about her vegetarianism here.

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