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The Guild Theatre: Love Letters - Review by Faith Jessel

Isn’t it wonderfully serendipitous the way theatre echoes where you are in life?

I saw my first performance of Love Letters when I was 15 years old. I remember the curtain closing and walking out of the theatre, then waiting in the rain for my father to pick me up, reflecting and feeling good. What I liked most was romantic, funny stuff. But I recall it also made me imagine, laugh and feel a bit sad. I’ve never forgotten it.

A.R Gurney’s 1988 Pulitzer finalist play is deceptively quiet and simple. On the surface, it is every actor's dream. A rehearsed reading of a relationship between Melissa Gardner and Andrew Makepeace Ladd III, channelled through the lost art of letter writing. They sit at their respective, metaphorical desks, hers round, flowing and feminine, Andy’s boxed in, heavy and traditional, surrounded by ambient lighting and a blank canvas of tall pale green walls. Two sides of the same coin, but never in the same room.

Scene one introduces our couple as 1937, 2nd graders. She is a budding, impetuous artist. A dreamer and feeler with a vivid imagination. He is her counterpart, responsible, restrained and academic. It's Valentine’s Day and cards are tentatively exchanged. And so begins an extraordinary friendship, sometimes romantic, sometimes not, of 50 years. They share confidences, hopes and dreams through postcards, drawings and letters that span the milestones, trials and tribulations of a lifespan. This is not a play for people who want guileless escape. Moving through innocent childhood antics and teenage hormones and repercussions, until ultimately asking the question - What is love? Andy and Melissa’s relationship scrutinises all types. Love through friendship, family, intimacy, and self. Slowly we come to invest and care for them as we do for dear friends.

Lyn Lee’s nicely subdued direction allows space for Gurney's words to breathe and speak for themselves, requiring the audience to visualise the action and build profiles of the characters as they grow, age and change while the timeline of events and disclosures unfolds. It is a listening play, making the actors' facial expressions and voice work all the more crucial.

Fortunately, real life partners, Dawn and David Pointon innately understand this and deliver refined and sensitive performances. Less is more and therefore makes a greater impact. In the spirit of Love Letters history, Melissa and Andy are shared across the season with four other couples performing three nights each. It would be fascinating to see their choices and varying interpretations.

The Pointon’s bring a natural ease in unpacking the many layers of two very complex people. David Pointon perfects Andy’s introverted, studiously ingrained reservation and conscientiousness. He struggles under “obligations to family, country and myself - in that order.” Apart from a few strategic pauses, his face and tone rarely gives anything away until the stakes demand it. These are markers for the lawyer and politician he will become. One of his final letters, when he lays his heart and words bare, is all the more poignant.

Dawn Pointon has more scope to express herself as Melissa. A woman born before her time. She does this beautifully, using her hands, body language and a lovely lyrical intonation. She is reactive, energetic and brutally direct. However, there is a subtle, underlying sadness evident almost right from the start. We worry for Melissa like Andy does. We want them both to find themselves in each other. The closing scene is a lesson in grasping for the joy in life and never letting go. The Pointon’s bow was so very deserved.

Now, after my second viewing, decades later, I truly understand Love Letters. Walking back to my car after a wonderful opening night performance (this time to drive myself home in the rain) I still felt that nostalgic sense of good, but this time for different reasons. The evening resonated for me so much more, because I have now journeyed as far as these fascinating characters. Great stories and theatre do that. They illustrate the shifts inside you.

See this show and take your partner or close friend. The conversation afterwards will be double the reward.

4 Valentines out of 5.

Love Letters plays at The Guild Theatre, Rockdale, until 2 December.

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