There’s a lot to praise about 412 Letters, the inaugural production of the play by Matthew Wilkie that opened tonight at the Union Theatre in Southwark.
There’s an affectionate, sparky chemistry between its two actresses, Emma Field-Rayner, who plays Ros, the uptight, respectably middle-class, high-flying PR executive, and Louise Kempton, who’s Charlotte, the working class, mixed-up but determined would-be writer.
The script is beautifully structured around the letters the two have exchanged — letters written primarily by Ros, that Charlotte has appropriated for her latest attempt to write the Great British Novel. We jump back and forth through time, as the carefully catalogued sheets reveal how the two met — Charlotte was the drummer in a band booed off-stage, who typically decided to take on the whole abusive audience with her fists, and came out worst from the deal — and how their relationship developed, then imploded.
The repartee is fast and witty, even if the roles the two play — Ros the grown-up, bossy organiser, Charlotte, the rebellion child, are, except for the lesbian nature of their relationship, already widely explored, perhaps to the point of cliché.
“I need closure,” Ros exclaims.
“Do I look like a fucking door?” Charlotte replies.
Even the set is notably tight and sophisticated, a single box barricaded with letters, that becomes successively the flat the two had, until recently, more or less shared, an unhappy party, and the train on which they make a significant journey. There’s something surprising, but oddly comforting too, about Charlotte’s writing instrument of choice, a battered old manual typewriter. They’re so rarely heard these days I’d forgotten how you can pound the keys in a satisfying tattoo that can speak louder than words.
Yet, the word dominating my thoughts after the one-hour, interval-less production was “slight”. The author writes in the introduction that this had been part of a larger, failed play, from which he had extracted this story — finding the title in the knowledge that Chekhov sent Olga Knipper, who was to be his wife, 412 love letters.
And it feels like that. As the romantic sub-plot woven through another play with bigger themes, this is a story that would work perfectly — the light entertainment accompanying more serious, dramatic events. On its own, it is like a parade of classy amuses bouches; entertaining, delightful, but ultimately unsatisfying.
The production, by the Adverse Camber Theatre Company, continues at the Union Theatre in Southwark until 22 April. Tickets: £10, concs £8. Bookings: 020 7261 9876.