Somerset Maugham's reputation these days rests more on his short stories and novel writing than his plays. Hard to believe that at one time – in 1904 – he had four plays running simultaneously in London.
The Letter (1927), adapted by Maugham himself from one of his short stories, is a hoary old chestnut, best known probably for its 1940 film version directed by William Wyler with Bette Davis and Herbert Marshall.
A whydunnit based on a real life ‘crime passionel’ Maugham heard about when he was travelling in the Far East, it's had several revivals, most notably Neil Bartlett's twelve years ago at the Lyric Hammersmith in a production that despite the play's dated melodrama and stilted script, worked surprisingly effectively as an expose of British middle-class hypocrisy and racism. All the same, it was hard to understand Bartlett's decision to revive it despite giving Joanna Lumley a chance to flaunt her undoubted talents as Leslie Crosbie, the seemingly strait-laced wife of a British plantation owner in Malaya, who murders her lover.
Alan Strachan's touring production, I'm afraid, gives us even fewer clues as to The Letter's popularity except to reinforce its credentials as a star vehicle. In line with the play's original outing with Maugham's favourite actress, Gladys Cooper, Bill Kenwright's touring version boasts Jenny Seagrove as the blackmailed wife, alongside Anthony Andrews, instead of her usual TV sparring partner, Martin Shaw's Judge John Deed.
Andrews plays her lawyer Howard Joyce, best friend to Leslie's adoring husband, Robert (Andrew Charleson), who, in the course of saving her neck, is required to compromise his British morality and dip his hands into some unseemly oriental waters.
Paul Farnsworth's bamboo and cane matting set suitably evokes servant-rich colonial days and exotic delights (not least a crimson-draped Chinese opium den). And Andrews, sporting a dapper cream suit, more and more resembles Prince Charles in discomfited mode and delivers his lines at such a snail's pace, he makes Edward Fox – surely one of our most idiosyncratic actors – seem positively modern by comparison.
Jason Chan does a rather good turn as the horribly stereotyped Ong Chi Seng, Howard's calculating Chinese clerk. Ms Seagrove, convincing as prim and dutiful, is less so when scaling the heights of repressed passion. The capacity Richmond Theatre audience, I have to report, loved every minute of it.
- Carole Woddis (reviewed at Richmond Theatre)