Theatre Royal, Haymarket – until 7 February 2021
Guest reviewer: Claire Roderick
A R Gurney’s gentle two-hander is an ideal choice for re-opening TR Haymarket, with the actors never leaving their writing desks throughout the performance.
The play chronicles the decades of letter writing between Andrew Makepeace Ladd III (Martin Shaw) and Melissa Gardner (Jenny Seagrove) from his first letter to her mother accepting an invitation to Melissa’s birthday party in kindergarten. Both from well-off WASP families, although Andrew is constantly reminded that the Gardners are much wealthier, their privileged lives take widely disparate paths, with the rebellious Melissa’s artistic talent clear from the outset as she bemoans writing and prefers sending Andy pictures she has drawn instead.
It soon becomes clear that their childhood affection will never lead to a happy ending, and they both marry other people, but keep in contact over the years – some years passing with a cursory Christmas greeting, and others a flurry of letters as one or both has life-changing experiences. Both characters cannot escape their upbringing, with Melissa following her parents into divorces and drinking, and Andrew unwilling to disappoint his father in proving that their family is as good as, and better than, their wealthier acquaintances and following the conventional route to Yale, the Navy and a political career.
Gurney himself said that the actors need only commit themselves to the night of the performance, but director Roy Marsden’s work with Shaw and Seagrove gives the already charming story an extra layer. The connection between the actors is enchanting and they do not force the humour of the script.
Once you get into the rhythm of the piece, you end up concentrating on the reactions of the listener rather than the writer. Seagrove makes the most of her showier role, brilliantly showing her frustrations as Shaw becomes stuffier and pompous, writing to her as if she were one of his constituents rather than his oldest and dearest friend. She gets most of the sharpest lines too, with Shaw reacting subtly and quietly in a contained but nuanced performance.
The characters are engaging and most of the audience appeared to be drawn into their complicated relationship, with gasps and moans when devastating news requires one last letter to be sent. It is in this letter that their relationship is truly expressed and ends the play on a bittersweet note reflecting on missed opportunities and unexpressed love. This isn’t challenging or original theatre, but it is polished and entertaining.
Love Letters is a charming and emotional play that is well worth a look.
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