The Long Letter
White Bear Theatre
Reviewed – 15th January 2020
“A more concentrated focus would engage us more and pinpoint that spark of emotion needed to bring Mary Ann’s story to life”
There is always something exciting about discovering historical figures who have been hitherto consigned to the bargain basement of biographies. Mary Ann Canning (later Mary Ann Hunn) is one such individual. She was the mother of George Canning who was Prime Minister in 1827 before a severe stroke curtailed his successful career, and ultimately his life. Although Mary went on to have eleven other children, George held a special place in her heart despite being separated from her from the age of six. George kept his mother firmly out of sight. He supported her financially but declared her unfit to meet his own wife and children. In 1803 Mary Ann wrote an impassioned, sixty-thousand word letter to George, seeking reconciliation and attempting to explain the choices she had made in her life.
This letter is the basis for “The Long Letter”, a new play written by Richard Clare, Chris Crowe, Daphne Jayasinghe, Abigail Kessel and Helen Moore, who also all perform in this short one act piece that sheds light on Mary’s remarkable story. The company take on many roles between them and, despite some blind casting, the story telling is succinctly clear and informative. But unfortunately, that is its major flaw. Too much of the precious stage time is spent reeling off the narrative instead of showing us the core of the characters. The result is a rather cold and stilted history lesson. The dialogue, which battles to get a word in edgeways with the documentary style delivery, aims purely for the head and not the heart.
Which is a shame. The five ensemble cast work well together and seamlessly switch through the many, many characters they portray but under Sophie Robson’s direction they are hindered by an overuse of prop and scene changes which distracts and wastes time – particularly when a lifetime is being shoehorned into sixty minutes of theatre. We barely have time to care about Mary Ann’s plight. Left penniless by the death of her husband, she struggles to support her son, George, and turns to the stage – one of the only routes open to her. Frowned upon at the time, she lost respectability and her son was taken away from her.
We long to learn more, but the focus moves on to the next phase of her life. Based on Julian Crowe’s biography; “George Canning Is My Son”, it is evidently a faithful homage to a significant woman, and it has to be praised for elevating Mary Ann’s profile. She was a force of nature; a formidable personality who lived on her own terms and did much to further the cause of women. But this re-enactment does little to shed light on the passion, the strength and the intelligence of a woman battling with society, with herself and with life.
Paradoxically, the show’s qualities are its downfalls. It is epic and a fascinating story and one that deserves to be told. But the panoramic perspective dilutes its own ingredients. A more concentrated focus would engage us more and pinpoint that spark of emotion needed to bring Mary Ann’s story to life.
Reviewed by Jonathan Evans
Photography by Karl Baker
The Long Letter
White Bear Theatre until 18th January
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