Wyndham's Theatre, London WC2
Opened 1 May
, 2007

Jenny Seagrove is not by any stretch of the imagination a bad actress. In recent years she has made a number of interesting choices of role, and her portrayals show both a thoughtful understanding of her characters and the technical skills to convey their thoughts and moods. Nor, for the same reason, do her performances lack depth: she recognises and communicates what is at the core. Rather, she reminds me of the Caribbean Sea in holiday adverts: so clear you can see  straight to the bottom, without murk or apparent refraction. This can be a problem. Normally, I use "clarity" as a term of approbation about acting or directing... but sometimes you find yourself wanting layers.

In William Somerset Maugham's 1927 play about murder, adultery and blackmail among the colonial classes on the Malay Peninsula, Seagrove plays planter's wife Leslie Crosbie, who as the curtain rises has just emptied a revolver into a man on her verandah. Her account of defending herself against his importunities is thrown into doubt by the discovery that a letter exists from her asking the deceased in impassioned terms to meet her while her husband was away; Crosbie's solicitor, Howard Joyce, is forced to buy the letter back from its current possessor via his oleaginous Chinese clerk (who probably organised the blackmail operation).

At every moment, one can see Seagrove's Mrs Crosbie clearly keeping herself in check, clearly feeling stress, clearly trying to ride out the inconsistency in her story, clearly desperate when it becomes apparent that she cannot avoid the truth emerging and, finally, clearly self-recriminatory as she confesses to Joyce and her husband about her affair with the dead man and the crime passionel of his murder. It's a fine performance, but I'm afraid it's not a particularly fascinating one.

Much the same about ability and clarity can be said with regard to Anthony Andrews, although probably in rather less courtly terms; and much the same is true of the transparency of his performance as Joyce the lawyer. Perhaps, too, he needs to experience what a student director once did with me in rehearsal: put a strip of duct tape across my forehead, so that every time I tried to raise one or both eyebrows, I couldn't help but feel it, and consequently would learn to avoid the gesture. Andrews is one of the world's single-eyebrow-raisers, and the effect in this play is to accentuate the comedy, which is already dangerously – and unintentionally – buoyant.

Reviewing a 1995 revival of The Letter here, I wrote that the difference between its world and ours tends to elicit sniggers rather than contemplation. Maugham saw with a wry though ultimately dispassionate eye the banalities and quirks of the Malay British. Eighty years on, however, we see little of the trenchancy, and what remains seems to us parodic. This is not helpful to the English characters, but it is positively perilous as regards the native ones. Such characters are at best distastefully patronised, more often casually despised, especially the Chinese. Joyce's clerk Ong Chi Seng (played by Jason Chan) is shown as a Cantonese Uriah Heep: immensely deferential and impudently over-exact in the Englishness of his expression. The phrase "ideas above his station" might have been coined for Ong. His blackmailing comrade is a slothful, malodorous opium addict. Twelve years ago, such portrayals were risible as well as offensive; today, with the allure of racism (even as an element of state policy) having rather advanced than receded, such portraits simply cannot be offered so blithely... still less in a theatre such as Wyndham's, a mere stone's throw – I use the phrase advisedly – from London's Chinatown.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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