Review: LETTERS LIVE, Royal Albert Hall

By: Oct. 04, 2019

Review: LETTERS LIVE, Royal Albert Hall

Review: LETTERS LIVE, Royal Albert Hall Almost six years since its first outing at the Tabernacle, Letters Live last night put on its biggest show yet: in the grandiose and historic setting of the Royal Albert Hall. As well as celebrating the joy and emotion of the written word, with the help of a stunning array of talent, the shows also seek to support charitable causes - this time it was the turn of the National Literacy Trust.

Over the course of three hours, the audience was treated to a wide-ranging selection of correspondence, including everything from noisy neighbours and Albert Hall shenanigans, to a prolifically flatulent dog.

On paper (pun most definitely intended), a whole evening dedicated to people reading out letters doesn't necessarily sound like the most exciting thing ever - even with the promise of famous faces putting in an appearance to do the honours. However, as we know from Shakespeare in particular, the letter is an excellent theatrical device, and you mustn't underestimate its power.

Adding in the fact that these are all absolutely genuine certainly helps, too. Knowing that there's a real voice behind it - on a couple of occasions last night these voices actually 'performed' their own compositions - adds an extra dimension; the sense of humour conveyed in their words are real, as are their emotions, beliefs, and experiences.

There wasn't any particular theme to the letters picked for this event, though the subject of war featured fairly heavily (whether as a backdrop to a love story or a first-hand account of its damage), as did some displays of female strength, and also the climate emergency that has engulfed the planet.

As it is quite a lengthy event, regular injections of humour are absolutely vital. Early highlights were Asim Chaudhry's Chabuddy G-style delivery of Oscar Brittle's letter to the Sydney Morning Herald about the various meats he has eaten, Alan Carr's reading of a letter from Marcel Proust about his loud and uninhibited neighbours, and Benedict Cumberbatch going into excruciating detail thanks to [Name Withheld] filling in some gaps for the health insurance company. Jude Law invoicing the Ritz through a letter from The Rozzers also provoked much mirth.

Taika Waititi was another hit of the evening, both for a fittingly surreal performance of a letter and poem from Salvador Dali, and for a 2004 note from New Zealander Justin Lee to the local police about a speeding incident - except, according to the authorities, Lee had been driving a different car (with the same registration number) in 1974. The date of his birth. The content was cleverly and hilariously crafted, then taken to a whole new level thanks to Waititi's irreverent style.

One of the biggest welcomes of the night was reserved for Olivia Colman, as she gave us a kind of preview of what's to come in The Crown next month, reading a letter from Elizabeth II's mother to her mother-in-law during the Blitz. She also teamed up with Alan Carr for an hilariously disturbing "Dear Dolly..." exchange, and voiced literary agent Peggy Ramsay in an encouraging message to playwright David Hare.

There were also some incredibly touching readings, such as Toni Morrison's letter of support to then senator Barack Obama (read by novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie), Crystal Clarke reading Melissa Harris-Perry's response to politician Richard Mourdock describing rape as an 'act of God', and Stephen Fry reading a letter he penned to help a fan through her depression, describing it as being "similar to weather". Jude Law's delivery of foreign correspondent Fergal Keane's letter to his newborn son (written as he cradled him in his arm) was also rather moving, full of hopes and fears for the future.

There have been bizarre things going on in the theatre of politics since its establishment, but current events are doing their best to rival moments from history - enter Rory Stewart. The announcement of a letter from Eton to Stanley Johnson elicited a gleeful response from most of the audience, but Stewart's introduction as the reader led to an extraordinary reaction; if anyone from the Conservative Party was going to do it, it had to be him - but that didn't stop shockwaves from rippling through the hall as he enjoyed a rousing reception.

"Boris sometimes seems affronted when criticised" drew an especially strong response, as it became apparent to the uninitiated that very little seems to have changed in Johnson's character since 1982. This was a very clever inclusion in the programme, and one of the more entertaining school reports you'll hear onstage.

As well as some musical performances from Sampha and later Damon Albarn, other highlights for me were Louise Brealey summoning the spirit of Emmeline Pankhurst writing to the WSPU in 1913, Asim Chaudhry and Stephen Fry reading an exchange contesting the ownership of the Sydney Opera House, and Alan Carr sending everyone into hysterics with Roald Dahl's description of a farting dog in a letter to his mother.

The evening ended on a sombre and thought-provoking note, with Benedict Cumberbatch reading a letter from environmentalist Wallace Stegner about the importance of retaining the "wilderness", emphasising the fact that this was written back in 1960. On the whole an emotional rollercoaster of a night, with tears of joy and sorrow, fascinating insights into humanity, and lots of important things to ponder. An essential event that you must take the time to experience.

Letters Live was at the Royal Albert Hall on 3 October


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