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Theatre in Review: Posting Letters to the Moon (59E59)

Simon Williams, Lucy Fleming. Photo: Carol Rosegg.

Anyone looking for a civilized ninety minutes of adult amusement can't go wrong with this lovely, casual piece. The actress Lucy Fleming, daughter of the stage and film star Celia Johnson and the travel writer Peter Fleming, has transformed her parents' World War II correspondence into an evocative piece of epistolary theatre, appearing with her husband, Simon Williams. (PBS fans with longish memories will recognize him as a star of the original Upstairs, Downstairs, one of the first British costume dramas to take America by storm.) Celia and Peter were like the characters in a Julian Fellowes drama -- glamorous, gifted, and with an unerring sense of le mot juste -- but, like millions of others, they suffered the fear, privation, and loneliness that were the inevitable byproducts of global conflict. Their daughter has shaped their letters into a conversation across space and time that serves as both vivid reportage and a testament to a profound and enduring love.

By the time war breaks out, Celia and Peter are married with a son, Nichol (fondly nicknamed "the sausage"). Peter, author of several best-sellers about Brazil and China (and brother of Ian Fleming, creator of James Bond), becomes an intelligence officer, serving stints in Norway, Egypt, India, and Burma. Celia, a popular stage star, carries on with her career while holding her family together. Neither task is easy. Of her run in the stage adaptation of Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca, we are told, "London was bombed nightly, but the theatres remained open. If the air raid alert had not been lifted by the end of the play the audience from the Queen's [Theatre] would join that of the Globe Theatre next door, where the actors would try to entertain them until the all-clear. This brave and popular run ended when a bomb fell on the theatre in September -- luckily after midnight."

On the home front, Celia and Nichol take up residence in a country house about forty miles from London with her sister-in-law, widowed at Dunkirk and with four children. Later, Celia's sister, also a war widow, arrives with three kids: "So, eight children, three young mothers, two of whom had lost their husbands." Celia finds work in films, beginning with In Which We Serve, a hugely successful propaganda drama that is the first of several collaborations with Noel Coward and David Lean. She is lucky, of course, but the work takes her away from home, where the horde of children must be tended, and cooks come and go with clockwork regularity. Celia, of course, is unversed in the domestic arts: "The whole business I find most dreadfully difficult and unreasonable," she says. "I can do things like peeling the potatoes and killing the caterpillars in the cabbages with anyone, but actually changing them from raw to cooked is a problem that I do not understand."

The Celia -- Peter letters are unfailingly witty and self-expressed. They are also, in their way, an act of bravery: Separated by thousands of miles, unsure when they will meet again -- or if they ever will -- their determination to amuse each other is a profound act of love. "Are you keeping a diary?" she asks. "I should recommend it rather than a woman, less expensive." Of her last film assignment, he comments, "I am v. glad about the film and am tickled at the idea of the film men grooming you for stardom and turning you into a glamorous cutie, but enviable though the groom's job is, I doubt their success. Not that you are not lovable and adorable, but you know what I mean." Describing a visit from the Royal Family to the set, she notes, "They can only invite God now and I don't suppose that would make such a good story for the press." Another time, he writes, "Saturday night in Basra! Outside, the immemorial desert, athrob with the hoof beats of the sheikhs, or at any rate of their horses. Inside, thoroughbred fish with long, fine, tapering cones grace the dinner table. The gay, tense scene revolves, emblematic of our relentless, glamour-drenched War Effort." (They also have a taste for uniquely British risqué jokes, which you'll have to go to 59E59 to enjoy.)

Underneath, however, the facts of life in wartime -- the rationing, the upheaval, the steady drumbeat of bad news -- have their effect. Even when involved in film work designed to aid the war effort, she frets, "People are having such ghastly times that all this seems silly, but I achieve nothing towards it, except for being able to make them cry on the films and that is no great shakes." To make herself useful, she goes to work at her local police station, where she meets all sorts of characters that excite her actorly imagination. Peter is frustrated by military bureaucracy and periods of enforced idleness; nevertheless, he becomes an expert in disseminating disinformation. He also has some wild adventures, including a plane ride piloted by an ex-jockey with little knowledge of aviation. "When we finally landed, he asked me if I knew how to switch the engine off," he recalls.

And parading through the evening are such British stage and film greats as Terence Rattigan, John Mills, Joyce Grenfell, Richard Attenborough, Peggy Ashcroft, and Trevor Howard; the last is Celia's Brief Encounter co-star, and her horror is delicious when she discovers that he is eight years her junior. All of them feature in the projections that add so much to the evening; my favorite is the shot of Celia in Rebecca, opposite the Mrs. Danvers of Margaret Rutherford, surely one of the strangest casting choices ever. Could the future Madame Arcati and Miss Marple really summon up an air of Gothic menace?

That these letters are being read by Celia and Peter's daughter and son-in-law only adds to the poignancy of the experience. Lucy becomes visibly moved by her mother's words: "I must say I'm feeling just about as low as I could. I miss you like ruddy hell. Do you know how proud I am of you? To me you are all the gallantry and courage and strength and fineness that you are fighting to defend, and I love and admire you for it immeasurably." Because of the vicissitudes of wartime, letters come through late, out of order, or never, and both continually pine to hear more from each other. It's a powerful reminder of a time when communication was so limited; indeed, the title of the piece alludes to Celia's profound sense of separation.

Still, Peter notes, "All your letters have an odd kind of gaiety about them which is very like you." Such gaiety was almost certainly a willed thing, but it got them through the toughest of times. Celia's account of the war's end has a you-are-there quality, as does the piece with a family development that points them resolutely to the future. Posting Letters to the Moon is a casual evening, almost as if one has dropped in on old friends who share some family treasures. Both stars are relaxed, engaging personalities, with the effortless charm of longtime professionals. There are many more spectacular evenings in town, but not many as enjoyable.--David Barbour

(20 May 2019)

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