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The Valentine Letters (Susan Elkin reviews)

The Valentine Letters

Steve Darlow based on Gepruft by Frances Zagni

Directed by Jo Emery

Fighting High Productions

Jack Studio


Star rating: 3


An epistolary play is a brave idea. If the script is based  entirely on letters than there is no scope for dialogue and that takes a lot of managing. Director Jo Emery and her cast of three do their best with this true story (the original letters are in the Imperial War Museum at Duxford) and most of the time it more or less works.

It is, of course, a very familiar story. My generation grew up with accounts of how our parents and their contemporaries coped during World War 2. Both my own parents (my father was in the RAF like John Valentine) and my in-laws had wartime marriages and endured long separations. I worked for a head teacher who was born in 1947. She had siblings born in 1936 and 1938. Her father was taken prisoner at the beginning of the war and her parents were apart for six years.

Nonetheless, there are now two generations beyond me,  many of whom won’t know these stories, so The Valentine Letters details something worth sharing. John Valentine (Tom Hilton) and his wife Ursula (Katie Hamilton) marry and a child Frances (Charlotte Dummond-Dunn) is born. Then John is in an operation over Germany which goes wrong but is actually one of the luckier ones because he bales out and ends up as prisoner of war in Germany for four years.

The play is constructed round Frances finding and reading her parents’ powerful love letters after they’re both dead and in places it’s quite moving. She acts as a sort of narrator/commentator as they – on opposite sides of the stage write letters to each other. And of course Ursula sends parcels.  All three actors are adept at conveying a great deal of facial emotion as the letters gradually chart the four years of separation and privation – during which Ursula buys a house and tries to make a home, John tries to learn the violin and Frances grows from a baby into a little girl. It isn’t plain sailing even after the release of prisoners in spring 1945 because John is seriously ill by then. It’s a survival story in every sense.

Dramatically though, it feels a bit flat because there are three characters on stage who, for a very long time, are in separate zones. For all that, each of these actors turns out a convincing performance with Hilton and Hamilton nailing 1940s RP pretty well whereas Frances speaks differently – as she would.  And they, and the play, give us a strong, pretty natural sense of how the letters range over very ordinary things (washing socks and cycling in the rain) to big dreams and hopes of being reunited eventually.

Author information
Susan Elkin Susan Elkin is an education journalist, author and former secondary teacher of English. She was Education and Training Editor at The Stage from 2005 - 2016
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