Writer: A.R. Gurney
Director: Roy Marsden
‘Letters are a way to present yourself in the best possible light to another person”; so writes A.R.Gurney in his epistolary play Love Letters, a new revival of which receives a West End transfer from the Theatre Royal Windsor. Originally a novel rejected by The New Yorker who thought it was a play, Roy Marsden’s production proves a charming and emotive celebration of the connection between two people and the words they exchange across a lifetime of friendship.
Andy and Melissa grow up together in a small town and send each other regular letters for more than 40-years. Melissa is born rich, growing up with a many-times divorced mother and a rebellious streak that earns her a reputation while Andy has more humble beginnings but a sensible character that allows him to rise and rise in society. As experiences, love affairs and careers pass by, can they find their way back to each other?
There is real power in Gurney’s writing and Marsden’s production that,allows the emotional connection between Andy and Melissa to blossom. Simply staged with matching mahogany writing desks on opposite sides of the performance space and no other scenery, everything depends on the strength of Gurney’s characters and the scenarios unfolding over many years of correspondence.
The setting, of course, reflects a slightly different world when writing and the telephone were the only ways to reach out across long distances and while written in 1989, Gurney makes no reference to dates or times in the back-and-forth exchanges, giving a timelessness in his writing which Marsden’s production permits. There are hints of days gone by in the way the characters speak to one another and their passage through the world, but this production never seems fusty or antiquated; in fact Love Letters feels as relevant as ever.
Two people separated by circumstance and often unable to meet certainly speaks to our experience of 2020, and across the 90-minutes of performance actors Jenny Seagrove and Martin Shaw draw out the huge variations of tone in Gurney’s writing as well as the different chapters in their characters’ lives that begin in childhood and follows them through school, the College-years, marriage, family and entirely opposite trajectories while still drawing them back to one another.
And despite the overly romantic title, the actors find all the nuances that divide as well as unite Melissa and Andy, developing not just a convincing will-they-won’t-they chemistry but working together to draw out the moments of bitterness, frustration and despair in this decades’ long conversation. Without ever leaving their seat, each reacts to every word the other sends.
Seagrove is particularly funny as the saucy Melissa, annoyed by her mother’s louche lifestyle but keen to experience as much as life has to offer. This gives her a casual cruelty as a youngster that Seagrove never dilutes and earns lots of her laughs for her exasperation with Andy’s more tedious letters in the middle years. Her story becomes darker and more sympathetic as she ages, unknowingly replicating her parent, and Seagrove’s performance is incredibly touching as Melissa’s seclusion overwhelms her.
Martin Shaw takes Andy on a slightly different path; shy and well-behaved as a child, we see his puppyish enthusiasm change into a self-satisfied confidence as success in the navy and later as a lawyer and politician moves him through the ranks. But Shaw retains the audience’s investment ensuring Andy is only ever himself with Melissa, and while his life has been planned out, the emotional final letter is a movingly delivered by Shaw.
Love Letters is a play about words, calling on the audience’s imagination to picture the scenes and experiences described in the snippets of letters passed between these characters. Marsden’s production never distracts from the impact of that writing, creating a potent cumulative effect as two people seek a continuing connection.
Runs until 7 February 2021