TIM WALKER reviews Love Letters, at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket, until February 7 (run currently paused).
Theodore Roosevelt got it right when he said that it’s not the critic who counts, but the man who’s actually in the arena. I found myself recalling the American president’s words when I saw Bill Kenwright in his socially-distanced seat at the opening night of Love Letters. The impresario, in the awful, all-pervading darkness of the West End, is striving valiantly to somehow keep the torch of theatre alight.
He had already failed – while daring greatly – to stage a novel production of Hamlet with Sir Ian McKellen in the title role, but, undeterred, he then ploughed more money into the plucky Turbine Theatre in south London to help them keep going. Now he’s back in the West End with his revival of A R Gurney’s celebrated two-hander about love and how it evolves over time.
It’s an affecting piece in the hands of the director Roy Marsden and its stars Martin Shaw and Jenny Seagrove as respectively Andrew Makepeace Ladd III and Melissa Gardner. It charts their romance through a long correspondence that begins in their college years and ends in old age when they’ve been through a series of unfulfilled relationships and finally recognise what they missed by not getting together and allowing their hearts to rule their heads.
I’ve seen it played a few times over the years – I recall an absurdly hammy version of it with Robert Wagner and his Hart to Hart co-star Stefanie Powers in the 1980s – and, too often, it’s been used as a vehicle for big star names who’ve reached a point in their careers when they like to perform sitting down and with the script all written down in front of them.
Shaw and Seagrove, by contrast, have clearly learnt every word and they give it everything they’ve got. They’ve acted together many times before – not least in the television series Judge John Deed – and the chemistry between them is simply magical. It is a play where the words are everything and they invest them with warmth, tenderness and humanity.
Still, I don’t know if I’m being totally objective in giving this show five stars. For obvious reasons, there’s not a lot I have to compare it with. I don’t even know, as I file this review, just after the opening night, if it will get to run for more than a few days with London looking like it’s about to be notched up to Tier Three at any moment.
What I do know is I’m grateful to its two stars, its director, and, most of all, to Kenwright just for having the courage to put this on at all. I know I’ve occasionally annoyed him with some of my reviews over the years, but, for all that, I’ve come to revere him and I’ve never been more impressed with him than I am now.
He knows – in Roosevelt’s words – “great enthusiasms”, and he has known, too, “the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat”. The tumultuous applause at the end of the first night – some gave it a standing ovation – was, I felt, as much for him as it was for the players.