The Letter

William Somerset Maugham
Wyndham's Theatre

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Producers are always looking for successful touring shows to transfer into London. However, in many cases what works before conservative provincial audiences cannot draw in big numbers in the West End, where is necessary to attract tourists and the young in addition to traditional theatre-goers.

In the middle of the twentieth century, Somerset Maugham's play was the kind of star vehicle that attracted top actresses such as Gladys Cooper in the London premiere, Bette Davis on film and Celia Johnson on TV.

One fears that The Letter, a very dated murder mystery from 80 years ago, will struggle to fill Wyndham's Theatre for any great length of time in its current incarnation.

Its success will be based on the presence of two much loved British actors, Anthony Andrews, still fondly remembered for his performance as Sebastian Flyte in Brideshead Revisited; and Jenny Seagrove.

The plot of The Letter is based around Miss Seagrove's character, Leslie Crosbie, a planter's wife in Malaya during the Twenties.

The opening is certainly exciting as, in pitch darkness, a gun is emptied into what turns out to be the corpse of poor Geoff Hammond, a bit of a ladies' man who exits the play in body before the lights come up on Paul Farnsworth's evocative set.

Mr Hammond is however a driving force behind all that happens thereafter, from the moment that Mrs Crosbie confesses to shooting him, apparently in self defence after an attempted rape.

She receives unswerving support from her husband Robert, played very well by Andrew Charleson, whose love and devotion for his wife is manifested throughout.

Her defence is put up by Robert's close friend Howard Joyce, a lawyer with the stiffest upper lip that you could ever hope to see, played by Andrews.

The plotting is very thin and hardly helped by stiff acting, so that all of Somerset Maugham's surprises are predictable within five minutes of the opening.

His contrivance to turn the plot is The Letter of the title, which incriminates the murderess. This leads the archetypally formal lawyer to follow his colleague, a comic Chinaman played by Jason Chan, to a murkily red opium den, where he compromises his principles to buy the offending document.

Somerset Maugham achieves a moral ending by condemning Leslie Crosbie to a boring (albeit pampered) colonial life with the wrong man.

At times, The Letter shows its age coming across as both sexist and racist, although there is a brief Chekhovian acknowledgement that the empire is starting to crumble and the natives will soon run their own countries.

Miss Seagrove mimics Celia Johnson but at no point seems comfortable or relaxed, even collapsing in a dead faint in stages like a chimney lovingly razed to the ground by Fred Dibnah. Mr Andrews is stolidly dull as a family solicitor who has found himself on the far side of the world defending a case that he knows to be wrong.

Director Alan Strachan seems to have no great faith in the text, on too many occasions asking his actors to introduce a fairly high degree of ironic body language or vocal tone.

Time will tell us whether the big names can initiate a reasonable West End run but the odds are not good.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher

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