First night: Love Letters should be thrown in the bin

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Love Letters

Theatre Royal

London

WITH MORE jaw than Joan Sutherland, Charlton Heston was once Hollywood's walking and talking (though not necessarily at the same time) definition of rugged masculinity. That, however, is not the phrase which most readily springs to mind while watching him in the latest star vehicle to trundle into town.

is the Hello! of theatregoing. Okay, so there's no room for a kidney-shaped swimming pool, but in all other respects AR Gurney's little money-spinner - sorry, play - offers the chance to see not one but two celebrities in the flesh. The tale of two intertwined lives set in the fake intimacy of an onstage home is all very heart to heart (or, in the case of 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 his play "began as a series of finger exercises which I improvised in the process of teaching myself to use a computer". By the end of this torpid evening, you realise that there is a greater truth buried in Gurney's remark: this isn't writing, it's typing.

"Chuck" and his lovely real-life wife Lydia play childhood sweethearts who begin a correspondence which meanders throughout their lives, their barely-acknowledged love brought together and split asunder by circumstances such as war and marriages to other people. The whole twee business is awash with unearned emotion - the essence of sentimentality - and has no real dramatic context.

The secret behind the bemusing success of this preposterous guff is simple. doesn't even abide by the old rule of "learn your lines and don't bump into the furniture", as the actors spend the entire performance seated side-by-side behind a table reading the script. In other words, it's a radio play: a weak, dully polite one, with barely adequate renditions. That's entertainment? The producers think so. And you'll be charged pounds 27.50 for the privilege.

So why this now? It's far from being Mr Heston's British stage debut. He did two plays in London during the Eighties and toured here a couple of years ago. In fact, the producer had a gap in his schedule and, given the current lust for celebrity, there's a belief that the public will book for any old tripe so long as they get to watch someone famous.

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

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