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 The Theatreguide.London Review

The Letter
Wyndham's Theatre      Summer 2007

Somerset Maugham's 1927 melodrama proves, unsurprisingly, to be a well-made acting vehicle, a bit old-fashioned in structure and psychology, but with some subtle but stinging barbs at British class and culture prejudices.

Set in the British colonial community in Malaya, it opens with a planter's wife shooting and killing another Englishman while, she says, defending her honour.

Her husband, her lawyer and the whole expat community rally around her, especially when the victim's relationship (Shock! Horror!) with a Chinese woman is revealed, offering clear proof of his caddishness.

But the appearance of the titular letter, suggesting that the shooter's story is not wholly truthful, raises a dilemma - should they continue to support One Of Us, or see that justice is done?

This takes the somewhat complacent Brits into unfamiliar moral territory, as well as forcing them to deal with Wily Oriental Gentlemen in opium dens.

The play is not directly about the casual racism and hypocrisy of the British abroad, but in working out its central story, it leaves even its most honourable characters a bit tarnished.

And it has two central roles - the lady and her lawyer - that give the performers a lot to sink their teeth into, and a lot of opportunity to display their craft.

And it is pure craft that you will see on display, with both Jenny Seagrove and Anthony Andrews giving technically delightful, if ultimately empty performances.

Seagrove holds the stage with confident authority, and you are happy to accept her as the most wronged of women, the coldest of schemers, or the victim of uncontrollable passions, as the plot turns present her.

You will rarely believe she is actually feeling the emotions she enacts, though, as the performance is entirely external, but anything more method-acting 'real' might overwhelm the fragile vessel of the play.

Anthony Andrews gives an even more purely technical performance, parading a seemingly inexhaustible repertoire of tics, mannerisms, sudden pauses and strange flutings of his voice - the sort of things that look like Real Acting.

The only thing you can really do is turn off your expectations of realism and just enjoy watching the fun he's having.

Alan Strachan directs with the wisdom of playing it full out, melodramatic flourishes and all, rather than trying to protect himself (as some directors might) with an ironic distance. Andrew Charleson and Jason Chan provide strong support.

Those who bemoan the disappearance of the nice old-fashioned play will enjoy this, Those who can appreciate the undisguised display of craftsmanship in both author and actors will enjoy this.

Only those who demand depth beneath the shiny veneer are likely to be disappointed.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review of The Letter - Wyndham's Theatre 2007

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