Six thunderous bullets are all it takes to kill a man in Alan Strachan’s haunting West End revival of the Somerset Maugham classic legalistic thriller the Letter. This is not so much a classic whodunit, but more a ‘Why did she do it’ and ‘What price love?’
Set in 1920s Malay, Jenny Seagrove (of counsel Jo Mills in Judge Deed fame) plays the embittered cool calculating Leslie Crosbie who opens the piece firing the fateful bullets. But was it self defence in the face of a possible rape or revenge on an ill suited lover? It all looks rather clear cut until an incriminating letter provides evidence that Crosbie’s tale is more fiction than fact. Seagrove takes to the piece with pure theatrical brilliance. Not perhaps allowing us to like her character, but rather as the play advances for us to understand her, even to the event that we know people like her – those trapped in a loveless marriage for the sake – well of anything else.
The undoubted stars of the play are the lawyers. Well why not indeed? Anthony Andrews as Crosbie’s defence lawyer gives a timing to the performance rarely seen recently in the West End. Every mannerism is wistfully measured in this delightfully balanced and underplayed performance. His moral struggle is one prevailing today for many lawyers, namely how far am I prepared to go for my client? After all “the law’s the law!” But then again, law at what price when friendship and duty are in issue.
As with every great hero Andrews has his foil in his able and ever thoughtful Chinese legal assistant played by Jason Chan, who proves to have both the cunning and delivery equal to that of his English counterpart. Their interplays are the real gems of the production – beautiful nuances, telling looks and an obsequiousness, which pervades devilish motives.
Paul Earnsworth’s sets feature a number of scenes all exquisitely designed, with an attention to detail that truly make you feel as if a window had been opened on the stage to 1920’s Malay. From the veranda of the bungalow on a rubber plantation to an opium den, the smattering of lines in the local language throughout the piece only served to convince and the interplays between the white immigrants and the local “boys” were beautifully scripted. Changes in the scenes were artfully dealt with as part and parcel of the servant’s duties.
In parts the performances are almost am dram in style, but rather than present this as a criticism, it actually gives a certain charm and ambiance to the piece. This is a delightful period drama in which law takes centre place. How far can and should a lawyer go in defending his client?
Wyndham's Theatre, Charing Cross Road London until August 11, 2007