Review: Ladies of Letters. Derby Theatre. (touring)

Title:  Ladies of Letters

Venue:  Derby Theatre

Date/s of run:  17th May – 21st May, BSL performance 19th May, Audio Described and Touch Tour 21st May matinee

Written by Lou Wakefield and Carole Hayman

Adapted by Jonathan Harvey

Directed by Joanna Read

Produced by Yvonne Arnaud Theatre

Tessa Peake-Jones as Irene Spencer

Gwyneth Strong as Vera Small

Ladies of Letters is a two-header which romps along at a pace, full of sharp, comedic observations and subtle barbs, but which ultimately celebrates the bonds of friendship.

A chance, drunken meeting under a table at a wedding leads to a long and unexpected friendship. A thank you note and borrowed handkerchief beget a return ‘thank you for the thank you note’, and so on, as the ladies slowly reveal more of themselves through their correspondence.

Vera (Gwyneth Strong) is a retired medical receptionist, Irene (Tessa Peake-Jones), an ex-mobile librarian. Both are widows whose offspring are ungrateful and unreachable. The idea of corresponding by post is already rather out-moded, having been replaced by the ubiquitous email, but lends itself to this more gentle style of comedy. Imagine the inflammatory effect of email upon some of the conversations – a hastily composed response which lights a touchpaper and whoosh, there goes your friendship!

Peake-Jones and Strong are both known for their roles in Only Fools and Horses, and whilst that was some time ago, and both have had many other successful roles, their comic timing still works beautifully. The script, adapted by Coronation Street Writer Jonathan Harvey from the original books by Lou Wakefield and Carole Hayman, is packed full of clever jibes, malapropisms, and wry humour but also bags of warmth.

From the original books, Ladies of Letters became a BBC Radio 4 drama which ran for 13 years, in 15-minute episodes as part of ‘Woman’s Hour’, and was later adapted for ITV and is still running on ITV3. This play adaptation distils some of the best of it.

Peake-Jones is crisp in her delivery, with superb diction and expression, her character ranging from mildly depressed suburban housewife to forthright front-line protester and everywhere in between. Strong as Vera is a quieter personality, less sure of herself, but who also undergoes her own journey of self-confidence. As the storyline becomes rather fantastical in the second act, Director Joanna Read keeps the friendship front and centre, taking us along with the women, despite their rather unexpected incarceration!

How refreshing to see ‘ordinary’, middle-aged, (middle class), women represented on-stage, albeit in a larger-than-life way. This is enhanced by the striking set which is almost cartoon-like, with neon-edged platforms, pop-up houses and concealed cupboards.

Ladies of Letters is a well-observed, gentle comedy on a domestic scale, with lots of laugh-out-loud moments.  It celebrates the meaning and warmth of women’s friendship, in all it’s gory glory.  Irene and Vera’s tales of retirement and the adventures therein give hope for us all! 

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