First published in The Times, Tuesday August 29 2017
Perhaps the highest compliment you can pay an actor is that they could read from the phonebook and still make it engaging. Letters Live, in which well-known (and not so well-known) personalities read from significant correspondence, obviously provides the performers with far greater scope than the Yellow Pages. Yet, perhaps inevitably, the show, which has toured widely, attracting A-list participants, proves something of a mixed postbag.
The set-up follows the old burglar’s creed of “get in quickly, do your business and get out again.” A brief preamble introduces the actors, who make their entrances through a curtained door at the back of the stage and give a fairly short reading before exiting just as quickly. A murmur of excitement greets household names (Ian McShane, Harriet Walter, Meera Syal), so that you end up feeling a little sorry for the less instantly recognisable performers.
Pic: Beth Chalmers
Although the event, in aid of local charities, sometimes feels a little smug and pleased with itself, the selection, introduced by Jamie Byng of Canongate publishers, is a good balance of the sombre and (sometimes unintentionally) funny. It almost goes without saying that the best performances are those invested with the most care and attention to detail. Walter closes her rendition of Bette Davis’s open letter to her estranged daughter B.D. with the kind of flourish you would expect of Hollywood royalty. Clint Dyer holds the audience, rapt, with his measured reading of James Baldwin’s powerful piece detailing his hopes and fears for his nephew’s future in a country riven by racism.
McShane, meanwhile, is handed a gift in the form of Pete Muggins’s hate mail to Abraham Lincoln, a litany of hellfire composed mostly of “goddamns”. Indeed, some of the richest examples are those gems written by ordinary people, notably the anonymous complaint, performed with relish by Syal, from a continental airlines passenger angry at being seated next to the toilet. “The passengers asses,” she writes, “seem to fit into my personal space like a pornographic jigsaw puzzle!”