Based on a real life scandal, Somerset Maugham’s The Letter takes place in the house of a plantation owner, Robert Crosbie, and his wife Leslie in the British colony of Malaya in the 1920s. With her husband away on business, Leslie claims that she shot a mutual friend, Geoff Hammond, in self-defence, following an attempted rape, and the play focuses on the steps taken by the wife’s lawyer to convince the court of her innocence. Matters are complicated somewhat following the discovery of an incriminating letter which throws doubt on her innocence and her lawyer is forced to make a huge decision in order to save her.
I imagine that Jenny Seagrove is aiming for impassive here as Leslie, but just comes across as wooden and completely devoid of emotion. It is as stiff a performance as I have ever seen, she never feels relaxed or comfortable on the stage and it was quite hard to watch. Matters are not helped by the plummy accents which permeate this production, but lend it the air of farce. Anthony Andrews was just dull as the lawyer who faces a dilemma and I didn’t give two hoots about him in the end. Jason Chan’s Chinese lawyer clerk does well to try and rise above the questionable racial stereotyping; Andrew Charleson’s blindly devoted husband is fine and Peter Sandys-Clarke’s British consul was nicely observed.
The scene changes were bizarre with a bamboo screen wheeling its way across the stage languidly and sapping any energy that might have been built up, with only the opium den scene providing any real interest. Altogether though, it is an unfortunately dull play, only the one vaguely thrilling moment at the very beginning, and it is riven with racial and sexual anachronisms and such a dated idea of stiff-upper-lipped British reserve which make it hard to swallow these days. But even with those edges smoothed, the play The Letter is just fundamentally dramatically unexciting and this production is therefore really not worth the effort.