Based on letters by Celia Johnson and Peter Fleming; Compiled by Lucy Fleming
Produced by Jermyn Street Theatre in association with Lucy Fleming
Off Off Broadway, Storytelling
Runs through 6.2.19
59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59 Street
by Ran Xia on 5.31.19
Simon Williams and Lucy Fleming in Posting Letters to the Moon. Photo by Carol Rosegg.
BOTTOM LINE: An intimate evening of letter readings, through which we travel through time and share a moment with married couple Celia Johnson and Peter Fleming.
“More than kisses, letters mingle souls. For, thus friends absent speak.” At the start of Posting Letters to the Moon, Simon Williams takes the stage to offer John Donne’s wise words as a preface to an evening spent listening to the correspondence of Celia Johnson and Peter Fleming, curated and read by himself and the couple's daughter Lucy Fleming. It all seems very casual and cozy, a fitting environment for an intimate form of time travel.
The MVPs of the night are wartime journalist Peter Fleming (brother of James Bond creator Ian Fleming), and Celia Johnson, Noël Coward’s favorite leading lady and star of the film Brief Encounter (which remains an influential piece, having inspired Kneehigh Theatre’s magnificent stage adaptation back in 2010). Their experience of WWII is unlocked through letters they wrote during Peter's deployment. With two simple film set chairs and side tables to rest their water glasses on, Fleming and Williams, also a married couple, cut to the chase and simply start reading, letting the words echo through time.
Creating a theatrical event consisting of nothing but the reading of letters in a relatively calm manner takes courage. Of course there have been plays based on real-life correspondence before. But Posting Letters to the Moon, which takes its title from a phrase in one of Celia’s letters, isn’t a play. It’s almost the format of a lecture, as the two performers are not so much playing the characters whose words they’re reading, but rather, simply presenting aspects of their life. However, unlike a rigid lecture, this show carries the energy of an afternoon chat over a cuppa. We in the audience participate in a conjuring of the history of war, through one couple's personal history, with an abundance of love. Peppered in throughout the evening is narration, offered between letters to offer contextual information. There's also a large projection screen between the two readers, where old photographs appear to enhance the words.
The letters are witty and full of charm, joyous even during the darkest times—especially Celia’s, who writes about her home life, her utter lack of cooking skills (who would’ve thought porridge had a mind of its own!), and her various wartime jobs, including being a police woman. But my favorite letter of the evening is one of Peter's, addressed to their young son Nicholas, in which the elder Fleming describes his experience in the jungles of Myanmar. The horror of war is translated in a tender and delightful way into words a child can understand. And in those words, through Williams' calm voice, we meet the loving family behind the letters.
My main criticism of the evening is of the music, which is added in certain moments for atmospheric effect. However, it doesn't enhance the storytelling, but rather takes us away from the direct connection the two performers have cultivated with the audience. I wish there'd have been more of a complex, dramatic moment with the music, or simply none at all.
Posting Letters to the Moon certainly isn’t for someone who’s looking to be enraptured by a highly theatricalized stage play. But this is nevertheless powerful storytelling. It shows the impact of war, for it tears families apart. But ultimately it’s about the strength of love that can endure and sustain. This piece is for those who cherish simplicity and intimate stories, and want to gain an insight into life during WWII from the perspective of people who indeed had the courage, as well as the humor, to get through it.
(Posting Letters to the Moon plays at 59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street, through June 2, 2019. The running time is 70 minutes with no intermission. Performances are Tuesdays through Fridays at 7:30; Saturdays at 2:30 & 7:30; and Sundays at 2:30. Tickets are $25 – $35 and are available at 59e59.org or by calling 646-892-7999.)
Posting Letters to the Moon is created and performed by Lucy Fleming and Simon Williams, based on letters written by Celia Johnson and Peter Fleming. Original Music and Sound by Simon Slater. Stage Manager is Jynelly Rosario.