It can be difficult to dramatise epistolary works – after all, there’s nothing inherently theatrical about a couple of people reading out letters to one another – so it’s to Jean Rogers’ credit that My Dear Miss Terry, her exploration of the correspondence between renowned actress Dame Ellen Terry and the playwright George Bernard Shaw, packs in quite as many pleasures as it does.
In part, this is because Rogers (who devised the show, as well as playing Terry) allows her characters to step out of time, making them more lively and more present – we don’t just feel we are peering at them through the lens of history. They cheerfully introduce themselves as dead, and the letters are interspersed with amused – and occasionally bemused – commentary on the modern world; for instance, wondering if now such correspondence would be classed as a ‘cyber romance’.
Rogers’ performance is also a delight – she packs charisma aplenty into Terry: flirtatious, playful, sometimes needy, sometimes insecure, sometimes as diva-ish as one would expect a leading lady to be. Paddy O’Keeffe has previous form as Bernard Shaw (having played him in Bernard Shaw Invites You), and so is unsurprisingly comfortable with the role, if sometimes less so with the lines, where there was the occasional stumble. But he brings a surprising whimsy and puckish charm to the role, and is Rogers’ perfect foil.
The letters themselves are engaging and entertaining, offering a fascinating insight into not only the mindset of Shaw (who dismisses Shakespeare and raves about Ibsen) and Terry, but theatre and art as a whole, and a woman’s role within that sphere. But with little narrative drive and not much action on stage beyond the performers swapping their writers’ desk for a couch, the text could have done with a serious cull: at around two hours (with interval) the piece is simply too slight to hold the attention that long.
My Dear Miss Terry was on at the Rialto Theatre, Brighton. Click here for more of their programme.