Lumley heads East of Edina

THE CRITICS THEATRE

YOU TAKE quite a risk when you cast Joanna Lumley in a once-fashionable 1920s play about a murder in South-East Asia. With this heady combination, it would be all too easy to pick up a laugh with a quaint period expression, a moment of melodrama or a hint of Patsy from Absolutely Fabulous. No such mishaps occur in Neil Bartlett's exemplary production of The Letter. You feel even the author would approve.

Somerset Maugham had been travelling in the Malay Peninsula when he heard the story about a woman who shot a man six times on the verandah of her home. It was just the sort of incident that gave Maugham, a former medical student, material to conduct one of his own autopsies. The challenge for any produc- tion of The Letter is to reveal these flaring emotions with the same diagnostic zeal. Bartlett does just that: steering his excellent cast into a spare, penetrating style that sidesteps melodrama. It's a modest virtue, but a substantial one.

Neil Stacy is particularly moving as the uxorious, optimistic husband. He never patronises his dim-witted character - far rarer than it sounds. Tim Pigott-Smith takes the lawyer, Joyce, from a gravely sceptical position to a tortured, impassioned one. You might not guess, from reading the text, the amount of sexual frustration in the air, but Pigott-Smith seems as tempted by Lumley as his gossipy wife is by the Assistant District Officer.

When playing a 1920s character, Joanna Lumley has the advantage of a naturally plummy accent. She is perfectly at home snapping orders to the servants or making light of serious things. When told that she will be charged with murder, only a certain kind of actress can get away with saying: "I'll just go and change into a jumper." There's no hint of her television persona here. She's brisk, demure and - leaving aside the six bullets she empties into the man on the verandah - impeccably well- mannered. The one irony in her performance is that she is a little more convincing when she is lying than she is when she is telling the truth.

In this engrossing production, the only conspicuous device that Bartlett adds is the doubling-up of the Chinese servants as stagehands. In the scene-changes these actors move props and furniture while grinning and shouting out instructions in Chinese. It's a small shift, but a subtle one, disorientating the audience and making them share something with the colonial characters. It is the feeling that in this environment the servants are the ones who are at home.

Tennessee Williams's first play started life as a story, Portrait of a Girl in Glass, turned into a screenplay called The Gentleman Caller, and finally made it to the stage as The Glass Menagerie. It's hard to imagine it as a film. Strongly auto-biographical, it's an intimate memory play well-suited to a small venue like the Donmar. What better way to launch an appeal for the threatened theatre than with a production of this quality?

The fire escape that leads out of the Wingfields' house in St Louis runs right round the dress circle, creating long, effective entrances and exits, and increasing the family's sense of isolation. In Rob Howell's design, the brick wall and the planked floor are painted blue: a cold, stark backdrop to the dreams that flicker as tentatively as the candlelight.

Sam Mendes directs a top-flight cast with great assurance. Zoe Wanamaker is the mother, Amanda, forever anxious that there will be no gentleman callers for her shy, crippled daughter. Wanamaker makes Amanda a warm, fussy, comical character, bustling round her two children: "Oh, Tom, Tom, Tom, of course I have to make a fuss!" When at the end of an elaborate evening she discovers that the gentleman caller already has a fiancee, she lets out a long "ohhh - how nice" as if someone was slowly letting air out of a tyre.

The two young men are also very good: the ruffled, handsome Ben Chaplin plays the laconic son and narrator, moving from an easy-going wit and charm, to anger and regret, while as the gentleman caller, Mark Dexter makes a remarkably confident and attractive stage debut. But these three performances really fade into the shadows as the evening progresses. It's Claire Skinner as the crippled daughter, Laura, who rivets the attention. A pale, slight, fragile figure, she trembles with nervous suppressed feelings. Lying on the floor she gazes at the only objects more fragile than her - a collection of glass animals. Skinner has an ability to play damaged characters without any suggestion of self-pity. She manages to be urgent and hesitant, fresh and dreamy. Above all she has an exceptional quality of stillness. The only problem with this actress is that she seems so lovely you can't imagine why the fire escape isn't thronging with gentleman callers.

In Robert Delamere's production of Tartuffe at the Manchester Royal Exchange, the first act resembles an early version of a Yellow Pages ad. The dissolute world spread out before us - wine, fruit, cards, masks, candlewax and jazzy music - has to be cleared in a frantic rush when news arrives that Dad is on his way home.

The texture of 17th-century life is rightly given prominence. The resplendent costumes that befit a family acquainted with the King make a dramatic contrast to the hair shirt and dirty bare feet of the religious impostor, Tartuffe. But Delamere can't resist a few extravagant flourishes of his own. There are cacophonous entrances, miners' lamps on servants heads and the King's soldiers flying in on ropes. These are shallow effects when compared with the absorbing power of the arguments. The cast concentrates more on the vigour of the debate than the humour of the situation. This emphasis admirably suits Roger Lloyd Pack's Tartuffe. He's a sallow, serious threat to the household,with a careful incantatory delivery which makes us believe that he has not only conned the master of the house. He has also conned himself.

'The Letter': Lyric, W6 (0181 741 2311), to 14 Oct; 'Glass Menagerie': Donmar, WC2 (0171 369 1732); 'Tartuffe': Manchester Royal Exchange (0161 833 9833).

News
A Brazilian wandering spider
news

World's most lethal spider found under a bunch of bananas

News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Wonnacott dancing the pasadoble
TVStrictly Come Dancing The Result
Sport
Mario Balotelli pictured in the win over QPR
footballInternet reacts to miss shocker for Liverpool striker
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
Arts and Entertainment
BBC's Antiques Roadshow uncovers a TIE fighter pilot helmet from the 1977 Star Wars film, valuing it at £50,000
TV

TV presenter Fiona Bruce seemed a bit startled by the find during the filming of Antiques Roadshow

News
people

Comedian says he 'never laughed as hard as I have writing with Rik'

Sport
Steven Caulker of QPR scores an own goal during the Barclays Premier League match between Queens Park Rangers and Liverpool
football
News
i100
Life and Style
tech
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    KS2 Teacher

    £100 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: Ofsted said "A good larger...

    Year 3 Teacher

    £100 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: KS2 TeacherWould you like ...

    KS1 Teacher

    £120 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: Ofsted said The outstandin...

    Teacher

    £100 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: Would you like to have a b...

    Day In a Page

    Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

    'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

    If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
    James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

    The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

    Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
    Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

    Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

    Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
    Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

    Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

    Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
    How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

    How to dress with authority

    Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
    New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

    New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

    'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
    Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

    Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

    The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
    Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

    Tim Minchin interview

    For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
    Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

    Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

    Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
    Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

    Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

    Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album
    Hugh Bonneville & Peter James: 'Peter loves his classic cars; I've always pootled along fine with a Mini Metro. I think I lack his panache'

    How We Met: Hugh Bonneville & Peter James

    'Peter loves his classic cars; I've always pootled along fine with a Mini Metro. I think I lack his panache'
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's heavenly crab dishes don't need hours of preparation

    Bill Granger's heavenly crab recipes

    Scared off by the strain of shelling a crab? Let a fishmonger do the hard work so you can focus on getting the flavours right
    Radamel Falcao: How faith and love drive the Colombian to glory

    Radamel Falcao: How faith and love drive the Colombian to glory

    After a remarkable conversion from reckless defender to prolific striker, Monaco's ace says he wants to make his loan deal at Old Trafford permanent
    Terry Venables: Premier League managers must not be allowed to dictate who plays and who does not play for England

    Terry Venables column

    Premier League managers must not be allowed to dictate who plays and who does not play for England
    The Inside Word: Brendan Rodgers looks to the future while Roy Hodgson is ghost of seasons past

    Michael Calvin's Inside Word

    Brendan Rodgers looks to the future while Roy Hodgson is ghost of seasons past