Wednesday, 5 August 2015

Review: Letter to Larry at the Jermyn Street Theatre

Letter to Larry
Jermyn Street Theatre
Reviewed on Tuesday 4th August 2015
★★

The year is 1960. Vivien Leigh is starring in Duel of Angels at New York City's Helen Hayes Theatre, and in a fitful state retires to her dressing room to confront the long postponed task of responding to a letter from her beloved Laurence Olivier, expressing to her his desire for divorce. This is the situation that playwright Donald Macdonald uses to conjure a portrait of the tortured actress, projecting herself backwards and forwards in time, reliving her triumphs and tribulations with the undulating emotions of a raft tossed on the sea. Under the guise of actress Susie Lindeman, we are asked to scrutinise Leigh, and find the pain behind the obsessive relationship with Olivier and her own insecurities, both professional and personal. 

Lindeman produces an impressive impersonation of the churlishly voiced Leigh, skilfully manoeuvring between the high pitched naivety of her youthful fa├žade, and the more brassy cynical observations that come with age. However, whilst the delivery is legitimately Leigh, the soft timbre of her vocalisation and the speed with which Lindeman expends some of the dialogue can make sections difficult to understand, even in the intimate Jermyn Street setting. There is a glint to the eye of Lindeman's Leigh, a twinkle somewhere between inspiration and impending doom. You can never be quite sure whether the character is basking the glory of her triumphs, or verging on the edge of tears. It's successfully unnerving, and lends a lot of weight to the credibility of Leigh's apparent manic depression. Hers is a biography of unending peaks and troughs. 

However, this consistent mental instability can be a little exhausting, as it persists for the entire duration of Leigh's character arc. There is a great deal of neurosis in Macdonald's text, and Leigh's mood swings are so frequent that they go from alarmingly unpredictable to tiresome. When one is spending an extended period of time with one character, it would've been enjoyable to witness some more of the charm and guile that led her to winning Olivier's heart in the first place. 

Cal McCrystal and Mic Gruchy's minimal design is disappointingly stark, and the video/lighting design draws the wrong kind of attention. Lindeman's face is often not lit sufficiently, and the lighting changes come with enough alarming severity as to take you out of the moment completely. It's a shame, as it comes at odds with Lindeman's pacing, and undoes a lot of her work in building a relationship with the audience. 

Vivien: Letter to Larry does have something interesting to say about how we prioritise our desires in life. One of the most poignant passages has Vivien brush aside her Academy recognition for Gone With the Wind, obsessing instead over how lovely her statuette will look upon the mantelpiece between Oliver's own gongs, and how she can finally consider herself worthy of her lover. It's a damning indictment of how little superficial success can mean when compared to the self worth associated with genuine human connection. However, this production, and Macdonald's script, is too bogged down with torment to capitalise on these themes. It becomes more an examination of a woman's mental decay, and cannot sustain the audience's attention on Lindeman's twisted energy alone.

Reviewed by Will Clarkson

Letter to Larry runs at the Jermyn Street Theatre until Saturday 22nd August 2015.
Please visit www.jermynstreettheatre.co.uk for further information and tickets.

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