Having established himself with the smash-hit comedy Caravan, it was interesting to see whether Donald MacDonald’s one-woman play, Letter to Larry, would be able to pack emotional depth alongside a few laughs. It is fair to say that this balance is just about met: Letter to Larry explores the effects of lost youth, beauty and health on the tortured Vivien Leigh (Susie Lindeman). However, while Lindeman pulled at one’s heartstrings, as a whole the production feels a little tired and dated.
The play takes place in 1960: while starring in Duel of Angels on Broadway, Vivien Leigh – the second wife of Sir Laurence Olivier – receives a letter asking for a divorce. 75 minutes are consumed by Leigh’s interior monologue weaving you down a path of her golden years, tainted by bipolar episodes and physical deterioration.
Letter to Larry is a one-woman show for a reason: Laurence Olivier morphs before our eyes from a man to a symbol of Leigh’s own fame, beauty and success, making her declaration “I love you better than I love myself” fairly empty. In fact, director Cal McCrystal makes you question whether Leigh loved Laurence Olivier, the person, at all…
However, making a man the symbol of all that was good in Leigh’s life did not seem at all romantic, but regressive. I had thought that post-Gilbert and Gubar we could start to move away from stereotyping women as Charlotte Bronte’s Bertha Mason type figure? Are we really meant to believe women are driven mad by love and confined to a dressing room dimly lit by red (à la the Red Room)? Even the screen projections onto the white chiffon drapes forming the background seem like they were borne straight out of Jane Eyre.
While it is true that in reality Leigh suffered from bipolar disorder, there seems to be the suggestion that over-zealous work ethic and lack of maternal instinct had some sort of karmic retribution on her health. I am not sure director Cal McCrystal wants us to like Leigh, but he plays on fairly out-dated reasons to gain our disapproval, such as presenting her sexuality as an impish vice equivalent to her reliance on alcohol, drugs and cigarettes.
Nevertheless, Lindeman is no doubt a polished professional. She is captivating and convincing as Leigh: while her baby-soft voice is slightly irritating, she navigates the stage brilliantly, prowling about like a caged animal presumably in imitation of Leigh’s mental captivity in her ‘golden’ past. Furthermore, her progressively more frequent lapses into rage make you believe that this was a woman not only angry at Olivier for leaving her, but at her own body for growing ill and frail. Furthermore, an hour and fifteen minutes of practically unbroken monologue is extremely impressive to witness, for which Lindeman must be commended.
The production’s staging feels at home in Piccadilly. While the three pieces of furniture positioned across the stage could sit comfortably in a nearby Mayfair apartment, as the play progresses and Lindeman leaps around the stage in a small red baby-doll slip, it feels as if we have been transported out of Mayfair to a burlesque show in Soho. Not ground-breaking staging, and perhaps verging on naff, but anything more would have detracted from Lindeman’s performance.
Although Letter to Larry does not push any theatrical boundaries – indeed it seems quite stuck in the past – Lindeman’s performance is brilliant and brings the production to life: she is an actor who knows exactly what she is doing.
Letter to Larry is playing at the Jermyn Street Theatre until 22 August. For more information and tickets, see the Jermyn Street Theatre website. Photo: Jermyn Street Theatre.