Jeremy Malies on the South Bank
1 September 2020
Has Alan Bennett’s A Lady of Letters fared well since it was first written for television in 1988? It’s hardly a plot spoiler to summarize the storyline as depicting Irene Ruddock, a vindictive bored spinster as she curtain-twitches to spy on a row of suburban houses in Leeds. Her hobby is letter-writing which develops from a few tart rejoinders to undertakers, MPs and even the Queen about perceived poor behaviour to accusing the wife of the local chemist of being a prostitute and another neighbour of being a child molester.
The obvious questions are: “Surely this is dated? Who writes letters anymore?” The play’s continuing relevance gives the lie to communication theorist Marshall McLuhan’s famous dictum that: “The medium is the message.” Irene’s weapons may be a pad of Basildon Bond writing paper and her trusted Platignum fountain pen but I’d bet that all 250 audience members (a full house in these socially-distanced times) could envisage her spreading lies and innuendo on Twitter, setting people against each other on Facebook and destroying the reputations of businesses on TripAdvisor. A period piece this ain’t.
Imelda Staunton in A Lady of Letters. Credit: Zac Nicholson.
Stepping out of the long shadow cast by the formidable Patricia Routledge in the role is Imelda Staunton who clearly takes delight in it. She can be seen as Her Majesty The Queen at Buckingham Palace in Netflix’s drama The Crown and I’m now waiting for her to be shown a letter from some contemporary nutter approximating to Irene.
Staunton’s comic timing is masterful as she rides crescendos of audience laughter stemming from her withering critique of neighbours to extraordinary non-sequiturs. (“Her mother was blind but made beautiful pastry.”) At times I worried that I was disturbing the rhythm by laughing too hard but Staunton could have reined things in had she needed to. You sense that at all times, director Jonathan Kent has simply allowed this robust piece enough room to breathe and his touch is light. He and Staunton use sustained moments of dead air as Irene clenches her jaw to suggest fleeting moments of self-awareness.
No matter how much laughter there may be, this is assuredly not a comedy. Bennett’s view of the working and lower-middle classes is often bleak and never cosy. Elsewhere in the set of plays reviewed by me and a colleague on another page, you’ll find aching grief at bereavement or sexual betrayal, sickness and substance abuse. Loneliness and lack of fulfilment are simply par for the course. Oh, and I forgot paedophilia and even incest. On the subject of incest, I’m only grateful that one of Bennett’s new monologues from this summer’s television series, An Ordinary Woman, wasn’t chosen by the Bridge. It deals (clumsily) with a mother obsessing sexually about her son in terms that are so graphic they turn my stomach retrospectively even now. ‘Adult-themed’ which is the phrase I read in some publicity blurb doesn’t begin to cover it.
Lucian Msamati in Playing Sandwiches. Photo credit: Zach Nicholson
Both characters in this pair of plays end up behind bars which must be a deliberate thematic programming choice by Nicholas Hytner, artistic supremo at the Bridge. Staunton gives immediate hints that the trajectory here from tutting about minor social shortcomings (only Alan Bennett could have a character associate lack of a cloth on the tea table with poor breeding) to something truly malevolent may be quite rapid. And the atheist Irene, with no expectation of an afterlife, utters one of the most stark and defeated lines I know across modern drama, a thought that explains how spitting out her bile has become a warped consolation for disappointment at having underachieved in life. “Sometimes I catch myself thinking that it will be better the second time around. But this is it. This has been my go.”
In terms of form, A Lady of Letters is perfect, and it comes as no surprise that the play frequently appears on the syllabus for A-Level (International Baccalaureate/AP examinations). It’s undiluted drama of a kind where if you blink, you’ll miss a vital piece of information that is required to join up the dots.
Irene is naturally cynical and vicious as opposed to many of the other protagonists in the Talking Heads plays who quickly sink into quiet despair. We need to be hyper-alert in order to try to understand what is really going on since she often misinterprets what she sees and reports on through her net curtains, in the shops or attending the funerals of people she admits to have barely known. Always fond of paradox, Bennett has Irene feel more liberated in prison than she ever did when she had her liberty. “It’s the first taste of freedom I’ve had for years.” I for one don’t believe in her redemption, however confessional and reflective the final asides may be. But it’s an amazing journey and the play is certainly the strongest in this series with a staggering performance from Staunton.
By contrast, I found the second piece Playing Sandwiches to be disappointing. A woman (unseen) with major issues and possibly drug problems leaves her child momentarily with a park keeper she has grown to trust. The title refers to a game that the child likes to play in which she puts her hands over those of an adult to form ‘sandwiches’.
Lucian Msamati as the park keeper has a substantial body of work behind him which I respect but I should confess that he’s never hit the right buttons for me. He is nowhere near getting the tics and modulations of Yorkshire English which is surely a prerequisite here since the character says he used to visit this very same park as a boy. Perhaps the accent doesn’t matter; as with Mamet, Pinter and even Brian Friel, the crucial thing is rhythm, and yet Msamati rarely strikes me as being on the beat and Bennett’s delicate idiom sits awkwardly.
There is always a big reveal in these plays but I don’t think it’s earned here. My instinct is that the fault lies evenly across the acting, the direction by Jeremy Herrin (possibly not working enough on the subtle cadences) and the writing. Just for once Bennett’s toying with us appears heavy-handed, even flamboyant, and I can almost hear him saying: “Which of you can work out my clever twist?” The supposed clues are too oblique. Amid a flurry of Wilfred’s recollected conversations, we hear his supervisor say: “When people’s staff records are missing it normally means they’ve been in prison.” Oh! I should have lazered in on a throwaway line within the first few minutes. Obviously, he’s a former prisoner!
If Msamati and Herrin are trying to explore the character from within I believe they fail. But perhaps Wilfred is not an enigma; he may be simply impenetrable and not particularly interesting. It’s a common Alan Bennett approach to explore the disparity between how a character is perceived by others and what they feel themselves about social interaction. If Wilfred is serious in his claim that the child “knew what she was doing” when the physical contact between them occurs, then he is a plain sociopath who has not been down a route of temptation and inner debate. I saw little by way of signposts and am not alone in being annoyed that the moment a character refers to children as “kiddies”, we’re expected to make the associative leap that he’s a paedophile. Of course! He’s fond of liquorice allsorts, has had many jobs and has never been invited to be a godparent. How stupid of me!
Msamati moves around more than the characters in the other plays and has more props. Our progress within the park brings him to a bandstand which is depicted by designer Bunny Christie as a projected image full of lush green background tones. (Irene by contrast is either in her front room or in the slammer.) George Fenton’s largely plaintive music takes a more orchestral and brassy tone while the bandstand is in view and there are many subtle touches of this kind that warrant better acting.
Running through all four plays that I saw was a simplicity of design meaning that few changes are required during the performance, and stage staff are not required to move furniture and props between plays which might involve them in proximity to us and each other so breaching virus precautions. Perhaps slick simple design may be a permanent legacy and part of the wretched ‘new normal’ that we’re all being told to embrace?
Playing Sandwiches is by no means dated; sadly it’s more relevant than ever but it misfires. One of the few things to catch my attention is Bennett’s acute ear for the way that politically correct personnel staff mangle the English language, and the script abounds with this as Wilfred remembers conversations. The two plays do of course dovetail in that we see the two characters behind bars. While Irene befriends fellow inmates and has the time of her life, we can be sure that Wilfred will be beaten to a pulp by other cons if he wanders off his specialist protected wing.
Both Sheffield Theatres and the Leeds Playhouse were due to stage transfers of some of these plays but were frustrated by the second lockdown in England. I feel lucky to have seen four pieces (The Shrine and Bed Among the Lentils are reviewed on other pages) which gave me shots of concentrated theatrical nourishment in what has otherwise been a cultural wasteland.