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The Valentine Letters at Jack Studio Theatre | Review

John and Ursula Valentine married early in World War II, but he was quickly called up to become a navigator in the RAF after which they rarely saw each other, and never at all after he was shot down and became a prisoner of war for the duration. They kept in touch by a huge series of letters, discovered by their daughter, Ursula, many years later, who edited them into a book, published in 2018, and more recently as a piece for the stage. I call it that, rather than a play, because it consists of two actors imagining they are writing letters to each other, the one who is supposed to be reading reacting to what is being said/written. The third actor as Frances, the Valentine’s daughter, narrates and bridges gaps in the story.

The Valentine Letters at Jack Studio Theatre. Photo credit: Sean Strange.
The Valentine Letters at Jack Studio Theatre. Photo credit: Sean Strange.

The main problem in The Valentine Letters is that Steve Darlow, who has had the gargantuan task of assembling everything into a coherent whole, has been unable to find any drama in the letters, and there is little or no “action”. Both protagonists’ writing is understated, in a very British way, clearly trying always to be cheerful, and there is little subtext suggesting what they are really feeling. Only occasionally do we glimpse that they are not coping with life such as when John eventually arrives home; he is by no means the man who left five years previously, weighing only six stone, and having suffered from diphtheria. But even here, the “stiff upper lip” mentality is uppermost and we never discover what each is really feeling inside – their emotions are never on show, even to each other, certainly not for a twenty-first century audience.

Tom Hilton is the most successful at trying to squeeze out a few drops of emotion from the script, especially when his aircraft is shot down and captured, and it is a shame that the interval did not occur here as this is the one point of climax in the evening. He looks like someone who might have been in the RAF in WW2, even if his hair is far too long, and although his moustache does not look convincing, it is the same as John’s in the various photographs of the time in the programme!

Katie Hamilton is very understated as his wife, Ursula, outwardly calm and controlled even when selling and buying a new house in wartime! It would have added so much more to our knowledge of her as a person if we had been given a glimpse of what she was really like: she comes across as two-dimensional, which she surely cannot have been.

It is a shame that the role of daughter Frances (Charlotte Drummond-Dunn) is just used by Darlow as a narrator, rather than a real person. After all, of the three she is the only one who is still alive and could surely have given some insight into her parents’ relationship, health etc. It is almost as if there is some sub-text which is being hidden here on purpose.

Director Jo Emery has made the most of what she is given, as have the actors, but one has a feeling that The Valentine Letters would have worked much more effectively as a radio play, or even as a serial. It adds nothing by being able to see the family: better to leave it to our imaginations! Even the projections (Dorian Black) on the black back wall of the simple set add little to the atmosphere.

It makes for a relaxing, slightly underwhelming evening of theatre, leaving one longing for more depth, though being glad one had seen it, especially as it reminds one of the very recent D-Day commemorations.

3 Star Review

Review by John Groves

Cast
Frances: Charlotte Drummond-Dunn
John Valentine: Tom Hilton
Ursula Valentine: Katie Hamilton

Creative Team
Writer: Steve Darlow
Director: Jo Emery
Lighting and Sound Design: Dorian Brooks
Tech operator: Tom Dimbylow
Produced by Fighting High Productions

THE VALENTINE LETTERS
by Steve Darlow
based on the book Geprüft by Frances Zagni
Tuesday 11 – Saturday 22 June 2024 at 7.30 pm
Jack Studio Theatre

Author

  • John Groves

    John Groves studied singing with Robert Easton and conducting with Clive Timms. He was lucky enough to act in the British premiere of a Strindberg play at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe more years ago than he cares to remember, as well as singing at the Royal Opera House - once! He taught drama and music at several schools, as well as examining the practical aspects of GCSE and A level drama for many years. For twenty five years he has conducted a brass band as well as living on one of the highest points of East Sussex surrounded by woodland, deer, foxes and badgers, with kites and buzzards flying overhead.

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