THE LETTER
Lyric Hammersmith, London W6
Opened 11 September, 1995

Since assuming the artistic directorship of the Lyric Hammersmith, Neil Bartlett has progressively broadened his directorial range from concentrating on unambiguously Queer-with-a-capital-Q pieces to encompass a range of other texts, which he nonetheless continues to shoot through with a faint but powerful vein of dark camp.

That part of his work, however, is done for him by the mere act of staging Somerset Maugham's 1927 play about murder, adultery and blackmail among the colonial classes on the Malay Peninsula. These are social circles in which, after emptying a revolver into a man in the opening moments of the play, Joanna Lumley's Leslie Crosbie is apprehended by being gently informed, "I think you're by way of being under arrest now," and in which the deceased is branded as a low character by dint of an affair with a Chinese woman "actually living in his bungalow".

The disjunction between that world and this sets the audience sniggering rather than pondering. The play's racism its Chinese characters are at best odiously patronised, more often casually despised is commented upon, but not counteracted, by having those characters execute the scene-changes whilst talking among themselves in Chinese; the teddibly clipped, proper exchanges of the Brits are easy to misread as parody.

The play is damned by its datedness alone, since Bartlett's production lavishes more attention and precision upon it than it deserves. Miss Lumley refrains from exploiting the role of Leslie Crosbie, delivering instead a performance of brittle poise as a woman believed incapable of doing wrong, whose immaculate veneer cracks with her carefully concocted story when an incriminating letter comes to light. This is vintage Lumley, a world away from the gargling cretin of Ab Fab.

Tim Pigott-Smith, too, ably conveys the distaste and disbelief of a ramrod-backed old-school solicitor in a world which does not play according to Hoyle. Neil Stacy's performance as doting husband Robert Crosbie is given with an unostentatious diligence that is easy to overlook until the final revelatory scene; Benedict Wong makes the best of a thankless task as solicitor's clerk Ong Chi Seng, blending antiquated notions of Oriental wile with a supercilious hyper-English correctness.

Bartlett's direction is perhaps the most disciplined I have seen from him; having chosen to walk such a fine line, he takes great pains not to betray the play by wavering from it. But the question remains: why stage it at all? As commentary, however unintentional, upon colonial attitudes it lags behind a raft of more trenchant works; as the tale of a devious woman, it is no more and no less than a throwback. As a vehicle for Joanna Lumley, its bodywork is impressive but one has no idea what it is doing on the road.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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