09 August 2015
Letter To Larry has the advantage of being a play that one cannot reasonably turn away from. It does this by its dialectics—past and present; stage and life; mania and depression—to the effect that the audience is engrossed and rarely numbed by the terrible sadness of it all. This balance is clearly a troublesome one to maintain, yet through the use of the Jermyn Street Theatre’s diminutive space and Susie’s Lindeman’s abundant skill it is a success.
The whole play is Vivien Leigh’s retelling of her life and relationship with Sir Laurence Olivier through a letter, or series of letters and what I assume is plain narration. It is a solo performance, which makes Susie Lindeman’s portrayal of the late actress all the more commanding. Her vocal skills are phenomenal: she manoeuvres around her high range with delicacy and varied intonation, although she is not afraid to reach her lower register, particularly when imitating the voices of other people. The key aspect is that Lindeman’s voice is not too chameleonic—it is a portrayal rather than an impression, essential in a piece like this. Her delivery is histrionic at times though this is utterly intentional: there is a line walked between Leigh’s actual persona and that of the stage. This is further illustrated in her movement. There is an affected delicacy to it but much of it unconsciously aids her speech. The only thing missing from Lindeman’s technique is more extremity when acting Leigh’s manic phases. It may be impertinent of me to state this as I lack a comprehensive knowledge of manic depression but it would improve the contrast to Leigh’s regular demeanour if she were to be slightly more desperate in her mania. Other than this, the performance could have Lindeman work her eyes more; while wide and intense, they do not seem to match the emotional output that her voice and body give. All this said however, her performing triumphs are major rather than minor: she is effective in creating sympathy despite the somewhat self-indulgent nature of Leigh’s letter.
Lindeman does not work alone in making Letter To Larry a great piece. Cal McCrystal creates a veritable ballet through his direction: he utilises a plethora of poses and levels to create a theatrically satisfying style. This style aids us in understanding Leigh’s grandness and her meekness. She becomes large at certain times, rushing from one end of the stage to another and then is suddenly a curled up figure on the floor. For her larger moments, McCrystal has Lindeman perform on top of a table which becomes a mock-stage but then in her sensual recollections the table suddenly turns into the more private object of a bed. Nevertheless, occasionally there is too much movement where stillness would suffice, especially in the beginning where some of Leigh’s backstory loses emphasis in the frenetic delivery.
What little of the set there is is used to careful effect: two chairs which flank centre stage with the aforementioned table sitting behind. The transitions into these chairs and to the table coincide with the transitions that Leigh goes through, particularly in her shifts from present to past. The thin white curtain that adorns the back wall niftily becomes a screen on which various images are projected while also being the sheets of Leigh’s bed. The most technically notable aspect of the set is the suspended lights that hang above a chair, evoking the image of a dressing room. The lights above remind one of a dressing room mirror, but one that has broken down much in the same way her fantasy and age has. One problem with this set-up is that while Lindeman sits below them there is also a projection of an actual mirror on the wall behind. This is unnecessary given the effectiveness of the lights and it detracts from the overall image it tries to create. The chair of said dressing room could also benefit from being orientated further to centre stage as it appears too distant. In addition, the table, with its stage-like quality, could be larger giving McCrystal more room to work with, though I realise what little space the theatre has given its black box style.
While I have listed several shortcomings, Letter To Larry is ultimately successful. It achieves something rarely found in London theatre: intimacy. Too often there is a focus on creating drama rather than on the people and forces that create it. This production avoids that mistake. Despite the Jermyn Street Theatre’s small stature, it is clearly able to compete with the West End heavyweights that neighbour it.