Love Letters at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket
In the passion stakes, A.R. Gurney's romantic two-hander Love Letters is pretty tame, tepid stuff. It takes as its backdrop the faintly archaic, genteel milieu of the American upper-middle classes, then embroiders it with a nostalgic, if dull, portrait of a couple of WASPs attempting to make sense of life and love.
Andy Ladd, the hero, and his amour Melissa do this by exchanging letters. They start at grade school with some rudimentary scribblings, continue through a confused preppy adolescence with angst-filled missives, and maintain their dispatches in fits and starts through an adulthood characterised by failed relationships and broken marriages.
The longevity of this fifty-year epistolary union is down to the fact that, while their relationship is intimate, it stays platonic for the most part. When the pair do eventually make attempts at consummation, it is noticeable that the correspondence and their partnership falters.
Love Letters utilises a format so simple it hardly seems to qualify as a stage play. Two actors - in this case Charlton Heston and wife Lydia Clarke Heston, but on previous occasions the likes of Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward - sit at a large writing desk and simply read out their billets-doux in turn. Apparently with little rehearsal and absolutely no direction.
But having seen it, direction seems to be exactly what the play lacks. Merely reading the letters from a script is fine if you have the dramatic presence of Mr Heston, but it can seem amateurish when you're less gifted like Mrs Heston. The latter's voice rose and fell in pitch almost inexplicably sometimes, and her habit of placing emphasis on the wrong word of each sentence was a constant source of irritation. Also, while Heston Esq falls easily into the role of the solid dependable Andy, his wife is a tad too elegant as the wayward, rebellious Melissa.
What I did like about Gurney's play was the way it defended, via the character of Andy, the dying art of letter-writing (especially apparent in this age of mobile phones). On occasions, Melissa insists that her beau uses the phone instead of the post-box. But Andy persists with his epistles, realising that they offer him catharsis and their friendship breathing space.
That said, I found this an intensely insipid love story, which I can't imagine will appeal to many except the conservative-minded or those over retirement age.