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Letters at the Network Theatre | Review

Who still writes letters these days? I am not talking about business contracts, but handwritten personal correspondence. It’s easy for some to say that older people do, and while some haven’t (for whatever reason) embraced technology, many of them have. I was introduced to Zoom in the early days of the pandemic by someone of pensionable age, for instance. But Josh (Tom Everatt) and Mary (Alina Ilin) wanted to do things differently, and they largely succeed, though an agreement not to look at one another’s social media profiles is breached: Josh discovers Mary had returned to London, briefly, if only to participate in a graduation ceremony – studying at university was her reason for being away from home in the first place – but never bothered to say so in her own letters.

LettersThe pen pals were precisely that, or at least it was fairly safe to assume so, until Josh takes umbrage at Mary finding herself a boyfriend. That said, the letters contain few details of what kind of friendship they had during their brief time together in Britain, with Josh choosing to pepper his letters with lengthy recollections of whatever it was he was up to. Knowing what precisely he had for lunch and who he ate it with would be the sort of thing that, in almost any other play, would be secondary to rather more weightier matters. Here, the weightier matters are there nonetheless, but Josh’s lunch somehow comes across as important as, say, getting a new job after being made redundant.

Some in the audience audibly gasped at one point when Mary contemplates pursuing a rather drastic course of action, which she is advised to take because it would be to her benefit. She decides not to bother, because her moral compass ultimately dictated otherwise. Not everything she does makes sense, but then perhaps love really does make people do things that others may consider highly irregular. As for Josh, he finds excitement in a spell of ‘funemployment’ (my choice of word rather than his), which makes the character seem less developed than Mary’s: she grapples with relationship problems while he observes the local population’s response to a monsoon during his travels in India.

The narrative, commendably, is far from predictable, and responses do not necessarily follow up on what was said before. A piece of bad news, for example, might have been acknowledged by the other party, with expressions of sympathy. This isn’t the case here, although I hasten to add this does not amount to cold-heartedness. They stick to corresponding by snail mail, and there are no offers to speak over the phone if the other one needs someone to talk things over with – this is their way of dealing with things, and for them, it seems to work.

Two square blocks that serve as seats are on stage, and two coat racks. At least eighty letters are pegged onto various clotheslines (they’re not really clotheslines, but I can’t possibly call them ropes) across the stage, some of which are directly referred to during the evening. When letters are dated, for instance, ‘4th November 2018’ or ‘15th August 2019’, there’s no ambiguity as to the play’s timeline. The show is remarkably convincing, both in its use of the longhand letter as a means of modern communication, and in the very varied expressions of human emotions, whether raw, refined, or something in between.

4 stars

Review by Chris Omaweng

Josh and Mary are friends. Josh lives in London and Mary, in Argentina. They meet for a brief period in London and promise to write letters to each other and to never use Facebook, Instagram or Emails. Whilst they are apart, Josh gets fired from his job and travels to India and Mary falls in love with an Irish man. Their bond grows stronger as they share the most intrinsic details of their lives through letters. An unexpected event in Mary’s life challenges the virtue of their friendship and makes them question what they really mean for each other.

The play is an attempt to bring back the nostalgic era of writing letters in a world that is addicted to instant gratification. It also reminds us that some connections are so pure that they have the power to transcend time and distance.

Director & Playwright Kashyap Raja
Set & Lighting Design Monika Gravagno
Cast Alina Ilin and Tom Everatt

The Network Theatre, March 22nd – March 24th, 2022

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