The Letter

  • Date:
    Wednesday, May 2, 2007
    Review by:
    Peter Brown

    The plantations of Malaya and Singapore form the backdrop to this tale of betrayal, murder and 'the love that dare not speak its name' from the mighty pen of W Somerset Maugham.

    It's the heady days of the British Empire, and Leslie and Robert Crosbie live on a Malayan plantation with a seemingly endless entourage of local 'boys' to do their bidding. But as we all know - or would like to know - life in the lap of luxury can be rather boring, and one's thoughts and eyes can tend to stray.

    The play starts with gunshots, and when the curtain goes up a body is lying on the steps of the Crosbie's veranda. When husband Robert, the local Assistant District Officer and the family lawyer have all been duly assembled, Leslie tells them that she killed their neighbour, Hammond, because he tried to rape her. Though she's promptly carted off to jail and arraigned on a charge of murder, it looks like a foregone conclusion that she'll be acquitted on the grounds of justifiable homicide until an incriminating letter surfaces which sets the cat amongst the pigeons, or should that be the tiger among the monkeys?

    Anthony Andrews leads as the lawyer with rather more than a dislike for the sharp-shooting woman he's defending. Andrews' fastidious colonial is a master of formality and exactness - though he never quite matches-up to the linguistic correctness of his clerk, Ong Chi Seng, well played by Jason Chan, who looks like he's just bought-up the entire local supply of Brylcream. Chan certainly has the best lines - and the few humorous ones at that - delivered with considerable aplomb. Jenny Seagrove is the murderess with a guilty secret. Calm and seemingly calculating, Seagrove also shows us she's a woman in the grip of powerful emotions and sexual desires.

    As it becomes clear, though Andrews' lawyer is professionally competent and skeptical, there is more on his mind than his brief. When he tells us that he is 'really rather fond of Robert', what he really means is that he is very, very fond of Robert, enough to cover-up a crime and commit one himself.

    The scene changes seem overly long and unduly complex - bamboo screens are dragged across the stage like a horizontal wipe in the movies. But the delays this caused confused the audience and no-one seemed to know when the play had actually ended. In other respects though, Paul Farnsworth's set is convincing, though there are some scenes which lack depth and restrict the action, making it seem rather static.

    Maugham's play was last given an airing in the mid-1990s, suggesting something of a revival of interest in Maugham's work, as well as the significance of the plum female role. But, essentially, the play doesn't enthuse or really engage us because it portrays the kind of stereotypical British reserve that belongs to the dim and distant past. There's also a very dated - and to some no doubt, rather repulsive - description of the non-English characters in this piece, even though Director Alan Strachan handles this with the sensitivity that historical distance can provide. For example, the Chinese go-between is an opium smoking slob, and the English characters despise the deceased for having taken up with a Chinese mistress.

    The steamy boredom of the jungle and the desires that emanate from it are certainly evident in Alan Strachan's sensitive production, and he rightly focuses our attention on the unspoken desire of Andrews' lawyer. Maugham's play, though, belongs to an era which for most of us is simply beyond recognition, and lacks the real power to grip or enthrall. Professionally competent though 'The Letter' certainly is, riveting it most certainly is not.


    What the popular press had to say.....
    NICHOLAS DE JONGH for THE EVENING STANDARD says, " Musty, dusty, irresistible piece of old hokum." PAUL TAYLOR for THE INDEPENDENT says, "Absorbing production." MICHAEL BILLINGTON for THE GUARDIAN says, "Meticulous revival." CHARLES SPENCER for THE DAILY TELEGRAPH says, "Splendidly entertaining." BENEDICT NIGHTINGALE for THE TIMES says, "Enjoyably melodramatic."

    External links to full reviews from popular press
    The Independent
    The Guardian
    Daily Telegraph
    The Times

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