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Review: LETTERS LIVE, Royal Albert Hall

Star-studded correspondence reading event returns to the nation’s village hall

Review: LETTERS LIVE, Royal Albert Hall
Brian Cox

Review: LETTERS LIVE, Royal Albert Hall After months of refurbishments and closure due to coronavirus, the Royal Albert Hall is back open and ready to celebrate its 150th anniversary. Part of its full re-opening programme was the return of Letters Live, an event which has taken place at various venues across the world (from the Union Chapel in Islington to the Calais refugee camp to Los Angeles), and made its debut at the Royal Albert Hall back in 2019.

Almost in defiance of the pandemic, this particular edition assembled its largest ever company; as ever, the identities of the participants were kept under wraps until each name was announced and they stepped on stage to perform.

These evenings are not solely about letters, there are also musical performances to add a bit of variety. In the absence of any Tory MPs announcing their resignation live on stage, à la Rory Stewart in 2019, the political commentary came from the content of these songs and letters, kicking off with Thom Yorke dedicating a new number, "Safe in the Knowledge", to "all my fellow UK musicians" in the wake of being told to retrain during the pandemic, and that Brexit was fine because they didn't need to tour anymore.

On the whole, it felt like the humorous letters slightly outweighed the more serious ones, which is fitting given the celebratory nature of this season at the Hall. It started as it meant to go on, with legendary actor Brian Cox reading what I can only describe as a complaint about a complaint about a complaint from Hunter S. Thompson, riddled with expletives - essentially allowing Cox to bring Succession's Logan Roy live to the London stage.

Other great comic contributions came from Sanjeev Bhaskar reading a letter from Vladimir Nabokov to his future wife Vera ("Why aren't you writing to me?"), Toby Jones reading a surreal note from surrealist poet Daniil Kharms ("I was standing on the balcony, reading your letter and eating semolina"), and Meera Syal reading something short and not-so sweet from horror writer Shirley Jackson to a dissatisfied reader ("If you don't like my peaches, don't shake my tree!").

Probably the funniest letter of the night - with a typically excellent performance from Benedict Cumberbatch - was written by Oliver Beales to Richard Branson, and known as the best customer complaint letter in the world. I urge you to seek out the full transcript, as it is absolutely superb; it's the kind of complaint letter that I aspire to write each time a company lets me down. I hope at some point a recording of Cumberbatch's reading gets released, as it was a great showcase for his comic talents.

Cynthia Erivo gave a wonderful reading of a warm and witty letter from Nina Simone to Langston Hughes, which was followed by a haunting performance of "Strange Fruit" (a song made famous by Billie Holliday) by Laura Mvula.

Review: LETTERS LIVE, Royal Albert Hall
Ione Wells

The most moving moment came in the second half, when Ione Wells read out the letter she wrote to her attacker, following sexual assault in 2015. The defiance in her words, stating that she would not change her behaviour because of this experience, had a powerful effect on the audience - and should hit home to anyone still in doubt, that it is how boys are raised into men that needs work. It may not be all men, but to a woman walking home alone it really could be any man.

Other notable appearance came from Emma Corrin, Daisy Ridley, Matt Lucas, Armistead Maupin, and Keegan Michael Key. Gillian Anderson was also on hand to read a letter she had penned to her 16-year-old self, plus Louise Brealey gave a beautiful and heartfelt reading of a letter from The Vagina Monologues playwright Eve Ensler, addressed to 'Mother Earth' - a fitting inclusion on the eve of COP26.

The evening's festivities concluded on a high, with Gabriels performing "Love and Hate in a Different Time". Because of all the darkness and feelings of hopelessness that are persevering (particularly in this country), it was a much appreciated upbeat ending to a night full of the magic of the humble letter. Now that's definitely something to write home about!

Letters Live was at the Royal Albert Hall on 30 October

Picture credit: Letters Live



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