Conception: Lou Wakefield & Carol Hayman
Adaptation: Jonathan Harvey
Director: Joanna Reid
Before the world had ‘frenemies’, we hadLadies of Letters– a benchmark of the finest passive-aggressive tactics the nation is quite well known for. From radio play to ITV hit, Lou Wakefield and Carol Hayman’sLadies of Lettershas remained a success throughout the years. And while the guise of the titular Ladies may change over the seasons and adaptations, a few things remain positively clear – the animosity, the one-upmanship, the humour, and tenderness which ripples through the chaos.
This time, a chance meeting under the table at her daughter’s wedding, Irene takes to stranger Vera quickly in their sherry-soaked state – the two ever so gradually becoming friends (somewhat) after sharing letters across the weeks and months following the wedding. Ex-medical receptionist Vera struggles with her isolation but takes great pride in her garden, whilst retired librarian Irene spends much of her time trying to remain in touch with her daughter after the wedding and caring for her beloved dog Charlie. And though the pair may have their differences, and trade the occasional venomous barb, their connection stays true through the years; all seems blissful – until the local M&S shuts down, and Irene acts.
It may have been nearly twenty years since the pair shared the screen as the long-time suffering partners of Del Boy and Rodney Trotter, but the close friendship between them retains its vigour, even as they stand apart on stage, separated, the connection is evident from the onset, enabling strings of venom to hurl across without care of delicacy. Tessa Peake-Jones and Gwyneth Strong form a recognisable relationship, where the surface level irritations belay a deeper companionship.
Spectacularly, the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre production enables the pair to form a truly authentic sense of identity through their monologuing, rarely (if ever) interacting as they take turns in responding to one another’s letters. The second act pries open the doors for a more direct relationship between the two, and though still separate onstage, infuses a sense of necessary momentum and dynamic changes. Culminating in a touching finale, one-seeded across the production, resulting in a tender closing, a celebration of aspects of Queer coded romance in older generations, so often ignored.
Though sharing a degree of similarities, the uniqueness in characterisation is a hugely advantageous quality to the pair. Both performers have had tremendous successes following their tenure on the BBC juggernaut comedy, Peake-Jones is now a familiar face for fans ofGrantchester, and Strong a regular in the theatrical world. Vera, initially more withdrawn, is kept with a level of decorum from Strong, but when the hair is let down (or tied up in this case), the fizzing energy Strong has been dying to let out is a welcome change, matching Peake-Jone’s consistent nervous energy as Irene throughout. The pair do a tremendous job of balancing the more subtle aspects of Harvey’s adaptation, Peake-Jones working wonders with altering her tone to pitch the delivery precisely.
But there are three stars onstage, Peake-Jones, Strong, and the neon bordered brilliance of the aesthetically pleasing and constructive set – hiding a plethora of goodies, mild scene changes or props within the large-scale letters. Constructed as podiums, quite fittingly, the limitations of space are countered within inventive stagecraft, all illuminated with a terrific sense of rainbow colours to reflect both mood and locational changes.
Jonathan Harvey’s adaptation takes the pair through paths unknown, setting Vera and Irene down a journey which would make the local WI blush, but one true to the character journey.Ladies of Lettersis a contemporising of a true classic, easing out the class narratives for a production that places friendships, partnerships, and women at the centre of the narrative – all to a glorious conclusion where audiences are dared not to smile.
Runs until 14 May 14 2022 then continues touring | Image: Contributed