Play by William Somerset Maugham. When the wife of a Malaysian rubber planter is witnessed murdering a local playboy, she claims it was self-defence. Convinced of her innocence, her husband hires a family friend to defend her. However, a mysterious letter subsequently comes to light, casting doubt on her integrity and threatening to cost her everything.
This dark and steamy psychological thriller, was adapted for the stage by W S Maugham from his own short story. The Letter has twice been filmed; Jeanne Eagels was nominated for an Oscar for her starring role in the 1929 version while Bette Davis, Herbert Marshall and James Stephenson led the cast of William Wyler's 1940 movie which received seven Oscar nominations including 'Best Picture' and 'Best Actress' for Bette Davis. A highly regarded television production was produced in 1956 which featured Celia Johnson as a much-praised 'Leslie Crosbie' and Roland Culver as 'Howard Joyce'.
Original West End Production 1927
Opened 24 February 1927, Closed 17 December 1927 at the Playhouse Theatre
The cast featured Gladys Cooper as 'Leslie Crosbie', Nigel Bruce as 'Robert Crosbie' and Leslie Faber as 'Howard Joyce' with George Carr as 'Ong Chi Seng'. Directed by Gerald du Maurier with designs by J A Fraser.
London Revival 1995
Previewed from 7 September 1995, Opened 11 September 1995, Closed 14 October 1995 at the Lyric Theatre Hammersmith
The cast featured Joanna Lumley as 'Leslie Crosbie', Neil Stacy as 'Robert Crosbie' and Tim Pigott-Smith as 'Howard Joyce' with Benedict Wong as 'Ong Chi Seng'. Directed by Neil Bartlett.
1st West End Revival 2007
Previewed 19 April 2007, Opened 1 May 2007, Closed 11 August 2007 at the Wyndham's Theatre
The cast featured Jenny Seagrove as 'Leslie Crosbie', Andrew Charleson as 'Robert Crosbie' and Anthony Andrews as 'Howard Joyce' with Jason Chan as 'Ong Chi Seng', Peter Sandys-Clarke as 'John Withers', Jamie Zubairi as 'Head Boy', Andrew Joshi as 'Hassan', Sioned Jones as 'Mrs Parker', Jon David Yu as 'Chung Hi', Liz Sutherland as 'Chinese Woman', Karen Ascoe as 'Dorothy Joyce' and Chris McCalphy as 'Geoffrey Hammond'. Directed by Alan Strachan with designs by Paul Farnsworth, lighting by Jason Taylor, music by Catherine Jayes and sound by Ian Horrocks-Taylor.
Jenny Seagrove is best known for her role as 'Jo Mills' in the BBC's hit television serial drama, Judge John Deed. Jenny Seagrove has numerous London West End stage credits, her most recent being playing alongside Hollywood star Woody Harrelson in Tennessee Williams' play The Night Of The Iguana and opposite Hayley Mills in Richard Harris' thriller Dead Guilty. Anthony Andrews came to the public's attention through his role as 'Sebastion Flyte' in the classic television drama Brideshead Revisted. His recent London West End stage credits include starring in Andrew Lloyd Webber's The Woman in White and the National Theatre's revival of My Fair Lady at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane.
"Despite the shock element of a character being gunned down - no messing, six shots ring out - as the curtain rises, I quickly began to doubt that The Letter was worth the price of a stamp... Yet as the plot unfolds - we know she did it, but why? - Alan Strachan's production becomes as gripping as Super Glue. Maugham's stilted dialogue is given new life by Jenny Seagrove, prim yet smoulderingly sexy as the accused and Anthony Andrews, playing her dapper defence lawyer." The Sun
"This antiquated curio, directed by Alan Strachan, is creakier than the top floor of a Parisian bordello at midnight, but, for all that, I think it will do very well. It could even turn out to be the next The Mousetrap... Miss Seagrove, stick-thin, hoarse-voiced and wearing a pained expression throughout, is no Bette Davis (who played the naughty Mrs Crosbie in the celebrated 1940 film noir) but she is eminently watchable nevertheless. In the quarter of a century that's followed his languid Sebastian Flyte in Brideshead Revisited, poor old Anthony Andrews has had to contend with one stiff, bloodless upper-class Englishman after another. This is no exception, but, as ever, he gives it all he's got. The old world charm of its two principals - and Somerset Maugham's cracking good yarn - finally wins the day." The Sunday Telegraph
The director Alan Strachan said: "The reputation of W Somerset Maugham - once the Grand Old Man of British Letters, internationally famous and successful as novelist, dramatist, short-story writer and essayist - took more than the usual posthumous dip, from which only now, half a century since his death in 1965, it is now recovering. Much of his varied output is once again in print and there have been recent successful London reappraisals of plays including the comedies Home and Beauty [London Lyric Theatre October 2002] and The Constant Wife [London Apollo Theatre Shaftesbury Avenue April 2002]... Maugham often could wrong-foot critics and readers. It is easy to confuse his detached scepticism with cynicism (a frequent charge), but although few authors have had less illusions about human behaviour, he was no cynic; he would have agreed with Oscar Wilde — another writer he admired, and whose fate shadowed his own life and fiercely-protected public image — when he wrote that ‘Cynicism is the bank holiday of sentimentality’, and Maugham was never sentimental. Moreover, his direct, plain style, noticeably devoid of flourish or embellishment, much influenced by French writers such as Maupassant, Montaigne or La Rochefoucauld (remember Maugham was essentially French until the age of ten) and by the lucid directness of Chekhov's stories, can confound literary expectations of ‘fine writing’.
"Undoubtedly, Maugham's stories, together with some of his plays, survive as his outstanding achievements rather than the once-trumpeted novels (although autobiographical early fiction written out of his medical experience — Liza of Lambeth or Of Human Bondage — still repay reading, along with his one masterpiece of a novel, Cakes and Ale). The short story particularly suited his forensic style — no padding, few digressions — and he knew better than most of his contemporaries how to ‘spin a yarn’.
His very best work is contained in two groups of short stories — the ‘Ashenden’ sequence of espionage tales written out of his Secret Service work, and those set in Malaysia or the South Seas. Always a compulsive traveller, he first visited the East in 1916 with his lover-companion Gerald Haxton, sailing from San Francisco to explore ‘the corrupt eager life of the Malays and the violent adventures of the South Seas’, and he returned in 1921 and 1925. Founded in 1895, the Federated Malay States (FMS) were then still under the flag, and in remote outstations and plantations Maugham found a Raj-like world of civil servants, rubber-planters and tin-miners in a slowly declining world of Empire, many of them similarly falling apart through sexual jealousy, drink or boredom.
"In this society Maugham as dispassionate commentator — he was once called 'the great Dry Martini in person', and of course detachment was invaluable for him as doctor, spy and writer alike —often took his stories directly from what he saw, or had related to him in clubs or on plantation verandas. He did not even change the name — Sadie Thompson — of the prostitute at the heart of Rain, one of his most famous short stories, and the adulterous murderers of Footprints in the Jungle he had met at a reception after being told of their past scandal. Similarly, the inspiration for The Letter, which first appeared in perhaps his finest collection of stories, The Casuarina Tree (1924), was the extraordinary real-life case of Ethel Proudlock, wife of the principal of a noted Kuala Lumpur school, who was sentenced to death for shooting a tin-mine manager (evidence pointed to a torrid affair) six times, although the European community organised, with remarkable efficiency, a petition which ultimately secured a free pardon.
Probing behind apparently innocuous characters — moustached elderly men and demure wives with little to set them apart — could unearth seething dramas of jealousy, parricide, murder and incest. In this landscape Maugham's detachment was a bonus, drawn as he was to men and women destroyed by a passion or a code of honour, a landscape in which suffering ‘does not ennoble, the criminal often escapes justice and the wages of sin do not necessarily lead to death’, as Nicholas Shakespeare wrote in his Everyman's Library edition of Maugham's stories.
"What Maugham caught about this world better than any writer, until Anthony Burgess' Malayan novels of the 1950s, was the dualism of Malaysian society. In many ways paradisial initially —Maugham wrote more than once of the pleasures of a Malay morning with papaya and English breakfast-tea taken on the veranda while the air still has some cool — there co-existed another aspect, another kind of magic, nocturnal and with the moon full. Literal magic then could be a potent presence, engineered by payangs or bomohs, with ghosts and malign spirits such as the pennggalan (a head and dangling entrails). The jungle is the great source of magic and, as Burgess said, ‘the heart of Malaysia is the jungle’.
"Just as he captured the sense of the Malaysian melting pot — Malay, Chinese, Sikh and European — so he comprehended its dualities and dichotomies. A divided man himself, often in conflict because of his sexuality — his outward, public life ran with oiled decorum, his private happiness wrecked often by Haxton's infidelities and squalid drunkenness — so he pierced through the surface order and routine of the colonial life of dances, tennis-parties and clubs, where planters could sit over six-week old copies of The Times, to the often turbulent pressures beneath (the nub of The Letter for Maugham was the violently passionate nature which occasionally, devastatingly, erupted from below the calm exterior of a seemingly average woman).
Most of the Far East stories deal with the lives of expat British planters, missionaries or administrators. But the native population is heard, crucially, even if mostly in the background. There broods often a sense of waiting, of bided time while the Brits in their white ducks, topees or linen dresses continue the round of tiffin parties, some of them perhaps just dimly aware that their long last colonial tea party was taking place on the rim of a volcano.
"This perception, fused to his rare, narrative skills, helps make Maugham's stories as vivid, as special as those of Kipling's Simla, of Graham Greeneland, or of Saki's country-house lawns. As Cyril Connolly wrote so perceptively — ‘If all else perish, there will remain a story-teller's world from Singapore to the Marquesas that is exclusively and forever Maugham, a world of veranda and prahu which we enter, as we do that of Conan Doyle's Baker Street, with a sense of happy and eternal homecoming’."
The Letter in London at the Wyndham's Theatre previewed from 19 April 2007, opened on 1 May 2007 and closed on 11 August 2007.