The Letter at The Whyndhams’s Theatre looks very creaky indeed in this Bill Kenwright production, directed by Alan Strachan. Somerset Maugham’s 1927 play is about a murder in colonial Malaya, and gives us some insight into the very dull and very British lives the ex-pats lead, and indeed the unthinking contempt with which they treat the native population (for example, by calling the men who work for them ‘boy’). Mrs Crosbie, a plantation owner’s wife shoots a male acquaintance who visits her home, seemingly uninvited, whilst her husband is in Singapore. Mrs Crosbie tells the authorities that the man attempted to rape her, and it’s plain sailing for an acquittal until an incriminating letter, detailing a relationship between the deceased and the accused, comes to light. Mrs Crosbie’s Lawyer, Howard Joyce, is also a close friend of her husband, but is certainly not fond of her. Joyce’s Malay legal clerk tells his boss of the existence of this incriminating letter, and despite his usual implacable integrity, Joyce agrees to pay to buy missive and thereby keep it from the prosecuting authorities, literally saving Mrs Crosbie’s neck. This results in Mrs Crosbie’s acquittal, but leads to frank revelations about her relationship with her husband, who she has never loved.
The play opens with Mrs Crosbie firing the gun (all six bullets) on a pitch black stage, so we’re not entirely sure of her story until later in the play, when we realise she is telling a pack of lies, and is a brutal murderer. We don’t see any of the trial either, so the play is heavy on exposition and description of events. I found a faint whiff of misogyny in Maugham’s story of the perennial femme fatal with a steely will. She deceives the menfolk with her sweet nature and turns her emotions on when it suits the situation, and is capable of emptying the lead repeatedly into her caddish ex-lover. This production also plays up Maugham’s homosexuality as key to the plot, but in a clunky and forced way. We’re to infer something more than friendship on the part of Mr Joyce towards Mr Crosbie. This entails Joyce patting Crosbie on the shoulder, letting him mop his brow with his handkerchief or giving him a broad smile from time to time. Yes, there probably is a homosexual subtext, but this production underlines it far too heavily, clearly thinking the audience are unable to work things out for themselves. The stereotyping of the native people by Maugham is also pretty ropey, an opium den overseen by a stoned amoral Chinaman, a slimy native lawyer willing to blackmail his boss, a shy and gaudy concubine selling her soul to the white man. The performance too were patchy. Anthony Andrews as the lawyer looked like a 100 year old giant tortoise with a constantly furrowed brow; you could hear the cogs in his head processing every thought. Jenny Seagrove is too flat, and then unfortunately high pitched, to be believable. Jason Chan as they legal clerk to Mr Joyce was extraordinarily slimy, but he does have a couple of funny lines which he delivered well. An old fashioned and mildly hammy night at the theatre, a sop to the theatre of yesterday.