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Letters: Irfan Shamji and Elizabeth Chan, The Gate – Zoom

Reviewer: Dominic Corr

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

Continuing to draw people together with their production of Letters, Gate once more dips into the not too distant past of the spring lockdown to gain insight on the experiences, thoughts, and emotions of two strangers. This pair, Irfan Shamji and Elizabeth Chan have sent one another a letter, which can be about anything, and perform a reading as part of the production. It offers endless capabilities, but any who have watched the previous weeks will be mournful to hear that The Gate has yet to trim the fat and focus on the power in its production.

Irfan Shamji’s letter is profoundly intimate and accessible in construct. There are no attempts to be overly stand-offish or ‘artsy’ and instead he strives to be authentic. It covers the anglification of his name – his identity, up to his recent loss in the family. And as well-written as the piece is, the performance from Elizabeth Chan sells the emotional integrity, the personality and heartache. Her diction and articulation of a stranger’s emotions are profound and deserving of more than Letters offers the pair.

We as a nation, young and old, are facing finality in a more visible way than we have for decades. Those who saw death as a distant concern suddenly find the reaper at the end of the road. Depressing, yet still with a nudge of humour, Shamji’s writing may feel familiar in structure, but it captures an essence of humanity immensely. To tie together the tragedies of Grenfell, the loss of his Grandfather, racism, death and yet, he still brings it together with a warming touch of dark humour.

In comparison, Chan’s letter is much shorter – dividing itself in two, a more general introduction and then a personal scramble of sorts as they open up about their place in the world and current issues with temporary accommodation. As a reader, Shamji makes for the superior writer but has difficulties in drawing coherency from Chan’s letter. The pair’s poems from accomplished poets are recited well, Chan giving a richer performance in the way she carries the words.

Until now, prop usage has been limited; indeed the inclusion of a brief chalkboard skit where the two draw one another is an oddly charming addition, furthering the idea of how we view others. And just as it seems as though the criticism has, just perhaps, been taken to heart covering the intrusive props – the finale happens.

Following two poetic recitations, concerning vast theologies of existence, being left behind, and longing, the production feels it necessary to end on a ‘high’. Perhaps understandably the creators fear a lack of substance or necessity for a chirpier ending. Instead, an asinine display of forced dance, confetti and gimmicks washes out the beautifully stitched writing, hindering the impact.

Worse still, the overbaked direction leads to the cast becoming confused about the structure of the production – when the recitation of the letter doesn’t feel like the central focus of the show, glaring issues emerge.

Even with extra points for a dig at the apathetic meanderings of a Chancellor of the Exchequer with no comprehension of the industry’s economic and cultural viability and significance, Letters can’t deflect from the unnecessary padding it bundles itself in.

The ability to forge connections with strangers and locate an appreciation for creativity should be found at the centre of this production. It just has to ditch the gimmicks, provide an ounce more autonomy to the readers/writers and remind the world that if we can be viable in our living rooms, we can be viable anywhere.

Runs here until 7 October 2020 

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The Reviews Hub London is under the editorship of John Roberts.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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