Letters: Alex Austin and Nigel Barratt – The Gate, Zoom

Reviewer: Richard Maguire

Directors: Nina Bowers, Yasmin Hafesji, Hannah Ringham and Moi Tran

The second of the Gate’s Letters is much like the first: some touching reflections on the strains of lockdown unfortunately undercut by some pointless tomfoolery. There are at least another 10 of these to go, and let’s hope that future shows in the series become more balanced.

The premise is simple. In May theatre creatives were told to write a letter to each other, but these missives were then sealed. In Letters two recipients read their letters out loud in virtual presence of the writers, and a hidden audience on Zoom. In Alex Austin’s letter to Nigel Barratt, he writes of early summer days in the garden and the neighbour’s cat Bella who comes bounding up the garden steps. Nigel Barratt’s letter to Austin is more detailed and biographical. He announces that he is a passionate Brexiteer, and then confesses that he may have just lied.

This exchange of letters is moving, and bittersweet as the audience will, no doubt, have experienced similar issues as the two men. Austin misses his boyfriend, while Barratt worries about his elderly parents. Austin’s lockdown-life seems quiet while Barratt’s peace is ruined by the loudspeakers of park officials in nearby Victoria Park. Another interesting moment happens when Barratt addresses Austin as a complete stranger, but Austin writes about meeting three times. It is in these unexpected scenes that Letters works best.

What doesn’t work are the tasks the two men are required to do before and during the reading of the letters. Another sealed envelope, this time with instructions and a box of props, directs Austin to paint spectacles on his face and to position a unicorn tusk on his head. Barratt has a tougher time of it; he’s ordered to wear a cravat and a riding hat and to keep a hobbyhorse under his arm. There seems little point to these party games and only interrupts the confessionary tone.

These antics almost ruin the poetry readings at the end, but mercifully the poems the two men choose can withstand this irreverence. For Barratt to read aloud, Austin picks the cannibalistic love poem Pancakes by Anis Mojgani. Austin reads the devastating Aleppo Diaries by Fouad Mohammad Fouad. But you can’t help but wish they weren’t wearing silly hats though.

It will be interesting to see if the creators of Letters will change anything in the next iterations of the piece. At the moment it is unbalanced. They should trust more in their participants and the powerful and healing properties of words.

Runs here until 20 October 2020

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The Reviews Hub London is under the acting editorship of Richard Maguire. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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