In our pressurised, fast paced, jet setting lives, amidst global political, religious and racial unrest, many of us relish a nostalgic longing for social stability, morality and tradition. The theatre is the place to find this lost world through the classic plays of the early 20th century. Never has Noel Coward been so popular with recent sell-out performances in London and across the UK of Private Lives, Present Laughter and Hay Fever – starring the likes of Judi Dench and Simon Callow. Bernard Shaw’s Mrs Warren’s Profession is currently being revived at the Royal Lyceum Edinburgh. And now Somerset Maugham’s psychological thriller, The Letter, first staged in 1927, has been revived for a UK tour, starring TV actors Anthony Andrews and Jenny Seagrove. Whether for the play or for the cast, The King’s Theatre, Edinburgh was packed last Wednesday night.
Set on a rubber plantation estate in the heart of Colonial British Malaysia in the mid 1920s, Leslie Crosbie, (Jenny Seagrove) is married to Robert, her adoring planter husband. As we learn more about their relationship later, he goes away for business meetings in Singapore, while she stays home with staff of house boys, to play tennis, go to dinner parties and embroider lace. The play starts with a bang, or more literally, six gun shots before the curtain rises. Leslie is standing over the body of a dead man on her veranda, explaining to her house boys that “He tried to make love to me and I shot him.” The dead man is a neighbour and social friend, Geoffrey Hammond.
Robert appoints his best friend and lawyer, Howard Joyce, (Anthony Andrews) to represent his wife in court. The criminal investigation begins and initially it seems like a clear cut case of self defence - an uninvited guest, attempted rape, justifiable manslaughter, virtue intact. But questions are raised - why shoot him six times and why had Hammond visited the house so late at night.?
Jenny Seagrove - tall, slender and stunningly beautiful - plays Leslie with a cool, surreptitious sexual charm. She has to “woo” Joyce to believe her story and ensure he will defend her with the utmost conviction. Evidence then swings against her with the appearance of a damaging letter. Andrews, every inch her prim, polite and upright lawyer, is seduced by her wily ways and slowly pushed into a dangerous game of intrigue and corruption.
Outside the courtroom drama, there’s an amusing scene when Joyce has to visit an opium den in Singapore’s Chinatown, brilliantly and colourfully portrayed through authentic music and street sound effects while Andrews shows some real comedic talent.
The set design – (Malay Bungalow
living room complete with bamboo chairs, blinds and whisky decanter)
– costumes - (white suits, panama hats and print frocks) - clipped
accents and mannerisms, capture the tropical heat, the period and
Colonial lifestyle. Moreover, we carefully observe the imperial
attitude of the upper crust British towards their inferior, yet
loyal, servants. Maugham lived in Singapore and his stories were
based upon and inspired by life here. As well as being an
entertaining thriller, to see “The Letter” today is a vitally
important piece of social history which teaches us a lot about the
old class system and British Empire.
©Vivien Devlin, 28 February, 2007 - Published on EdinburghGuide.com