Reviewer: S.E. Webster
Against a silhouette backdrop of Edinburgh’s iconic landmarks, Letters Live, the final instalment in the 70th anniversary programme of the Edinburgh International Festival, makes its Festival debut. A combination of surprise performances from famous stage and screen actors and written correspondence by often famous, eminent or simply downright funny people, makes for a compelling evening of spoken word performances. Moreover, not only are the actors themselves a surprise, but so too are the authors of many of the letters; the audience do not always find out whom the letter is from until the actor ‘signs off’ at the end of the letter, helping to heighten the suspense and mystery behind some of the more intriguing letters.
All of the actors perform the letters with great sincerity and successfully embody the characters, indeed the personalities of the real people, behind the letters. Some standout performances ensue from Sanjeev Bhaskar and Meera Syal, who are fantastic comedians and unsurprisingly do not disappoint with the more comedic letters. Meanwhile, veteran Letters Live performer Louise Brealey gives a touching performance of Chris Barker and Bessie Moore’s love letters alongside Ferdinand Kingsley. Kingsley also does an excellent delivery or a letter written by a tipsy Roald Dahl to his mother, though the audience’s favourite performer of the night seems to be Ian McShane who seems to get all the best lines.
Live music from Eddi Reader alters the pace of the evening, highlighting the fact that many of these letters are very poetic and lend themselves to music extremely well.
However, there are a few glitches which is surprising when one considers that Letters Live as a format has been performed in various locations dozens of times previously, having enjoyed sell-out runs in London. There is a reason that all lecterns are sloped; so that the reader can glance down at their notes at a comfortable angle without moving their head and thereby ensuring the projection of their voice is not compromised, nor that they spend excessive time losing their place and finding it again. In Letters Live more than one reader notably struggles, occasionally even fluffing their lines as a combination of low lighting, reflecting plastic wallets (containing said letters) and a flat lectern hamper their delivery, physically dropping their heads as they strain for the words on the page. It is frustrating to see this when it could so easily be rectified. Likewise the piano is positioned facing away from the audience, which is problematic for performers who are singing at it.
It is also a pity that for the Edinburgh International Festival performance, a coherent overarching theme was not chosen to link all the letters more effectively into a single collective. while variety is refreshing, and the oscillation between comical and serious letters is effective, and predictably overtly Scottish subjects do occasionally feature (Mary Queen of Scots gets a look-in – no surprises there) it feels slightly lazy that for its Festival debut more thought hasn’t gone into the selection of letters.
It is also slightly bizarre that actors who are, for example, not Northern Irish or American, read letters in an attempt of those accents, rather than simply having an Irish or American actor perform them – though the effort is commendable and they just about pull it off.
Overall, however, this is an enjoyable and alternative spoken word performance, shining a light on some fascinating correspondence, that will no doubt intrigue and inspire audiences.
Reviewed on 27th August 2017 | Image: Contributed