Theatre: Heston, we have a problem

LOVE LETTERS THEATRE ROYAL, HAYMARKET, LONDON PLACE

CHARLTON HESTON used to be Hollywood's walking and talking (though not necessarily at the same time) definition of rugged masculinity. That, however, is not the phrase which springs to mind while watching him in the latest star vehicle to trundle into town.

Love Letters is the Hello! of theatregoing. There's no kidney-shaped swimming pool, but in all other respects AR Gurney's little money- spinner - sorry, play - shows us not one but two celebrities in the flesh as they tell us of two intertwined lives in the intimacy of an onstage home. All very heart to heart. Or, in its last West End incarnation eight years ago, Hart to Hart, as the roles were then taken by Robert Wagner and Stefanie Powers.

Gurney's startlingly disingenuous programme note tells us that this "began as a series of finger exercises which I improvised in the process of teaching myself to use a computer". There is a greater truth in Gurney's remark: this isn't writing, it's typing.

"Chuck" and Lydia, his real-life wife of 52 years, play childhood sweethearts whose correspondence meanders throughout their lives, their barely acknowledged love brought together and split asunder by circumstances such as war, unshared politics and marriages to other people.

She's artistic, moneyed and independent. He's from a humbler background, becomes a law professor and then a senator. Will they reconcile their differences? Do we care?

The whole twee business is awash with unearned emotion - the very essence of sentimentality - with sadnesses signalled and revealed with no real dramatic context. Love Letters doesn't even abide by the old rule of "Learn your lines and don't bump into the furniture", since the actors sit side-by-side behind a table reading the script with the aid of microphones. In other words, it's a radio play, a weak, dully polite one.

These two simply go through the motions. The most theatrical moment is at the beginning of the second act when you realise that there has been an (unnecessary) costume change. That's entertainment? Well, the producers think so. And you'll be charged pounds 27.50 for the privilege.

So why this now? It's not Heston's British stage debut: he did two plays in London during the Eighties, and toured Love Letters here a couple of years ago. In fact, the producer had a gap in his schedule before his next production. And there's a grotesque belief that the public will book for any old tripe just so long as they get to watch someone famous.

The best thing about it? The theatre is air-conditioned.

Booking: 0171-930 8800. A version of this review appeared in later editions of yesterday's paper.

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