Theatre: THE LETTER Lyric Hammersmith, London

Paul Taylor
Tuesday 12 September 1995 23:02

It may seem perverse to begin a review of The Letter with the scene-shifters rather than with Joanna Lumley - but never let it be said that I get my priorities wrong. Based on a real-life case, Maugham's 1927 play is set in the Malay peninsula and focuses on a planter's wife who fires six bullets into her clandestine lover, cries rape and evades hanging. It's not the melodrama, though, that gives the play its bite nowadays but Maugham's disenchanted and acute outsider's eye for the knee-jerk racism of the snooty British colonialists towards the indigenous population.

Neil Bartlett's powerful and penetrating production manages to underline this point without recourse to solemn political correctness. In a witty touch, he has the scenery shifted by the native household staff, who take over the premises with a mischievous mockery whenever their masters are offstage. Not only does this enable them to establish a conspiracy with the contemporary audience over the heads of the whites in the play, but it also points up an ironic feature of Maugham's story: that the natives are actually in control of the proceedings and that the clannishness that passes for morality among the British leaves them vulnerable to exploitation from those they have exploited.

This is wonderfully conveyed in the performance of Benedict Wong, who plays Ong Chi Seng, the clever young clerk of the English defence lawyer. With the silkenly courteous deference of a Jeeves, he manages to run rapid rings round his boss, forcing him to buy back at huge expense an incriminating letter from the accused to the deceased, now in the possession of the dead man's Chinese mistress. All huffing rectitude in a well-pressed suit and bow-tie, Tim Pigott-Smith's splendidly stiff and starchy lawyer, Joyce, can't see that the contempt he feels for Ong could now easily cut both ways.

"You know what men are like - they never care for the women their particular friends marry": the play gives a cunning twist to that proposition. Crosbie, the husband of the accused woman, is Joyce's oldest friend, thus making the lawyer in some ways hostile to, and suspicious of, his client. Joanna Lumley, as the eerily self-controlled mistress, is never better than in those moments when she plays on Joyce's protective affection for her honourable chump of a husband (Neil Stacy). Save him by saving me, is her message, and Lumley, all clenched upper-crustiness, valuably keeps you guessing about the precise mix in that tactic of compunctious altruism and self- serving calculation.

I wish I could be as positive about her big moment at the end, when the volcano of feeling in this repressed woman finally erupts. To my eye, Lumley looked too much as if she was trying to lose control, which is a contradiction in terms. A moderately fabulous star performance, then, in an incisive, very enjoyable production. It shows Bartlett reaping the rewards for exercising a virtue not often associated with him: restraint.

n To 14 Oct. Booking: 0171-741 2311

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