Love Letters Straight from Your Heart
Hankies at the ready: this astonishing emotional performance piece comes to the Southbank
Richard Dufty, co-artistic director of Bristol-based live artists Uninvited Guests, laughs uproariously when I describe the Guests' performance piece 'Love Letters Straight from Your Heart' as 'emotional DJing'. That's slightly glib, perhaps, but it's hard to find the right words for 'Love Letters…', a weepie of such staggering intensity that it makes 'It's a Wonderful Life' look like 'Transporter 3'.
'The seed of the show,' says Dufty, 'was this feeling that apart from at weddings and funerals, you don't get to say to the people you really love what you really think of them. So we want to give people another chance to say what they think about their mum or their dad or an old flame.'
Prior to performances, ticket holders are asked to submit an anonymous dedication of a song to a loved one. The show itself takes place around a banqueting table, where Dufty and fellow Guest Jessica Hoffmann play master and mistress of ceremonies (the piece is directed by the third and final Guest, Paul Clarke).
I saw 'Love Letters…' on its acclaimed 2009 Edinburgh run, where the Guests reduced me - and everyone else there - to a blubbing mess, simply by playing musical requests, reading out dedications and earnestly throwing their own experiences into the mix.
Building from jokey and joyful declarations of love to heartbreaking confessions of loss, much of the piece's power comes from the startling eloquence and honesty with which people are prepared to write under the veil of anonymity.
'I think why it works and why it feels so charged is because it's not an everyday occurrence,' says Dufty. 'It gives people the opportunity to say all that stuff they've been sitting on for a long time. People have said to us: “Because of the anonymity you gave me I was able to say stuff to my lover I didn't think I could, or to somebody I loved once and haven't got over and never thought I'd be able to talk to.” I remember one woman came along who'd just lost her husband, a policeman who'd been killed in a motorcycle accident. She hadn't actually made a dedication but she came up afterwards and said: “My God, I'd been sitting on so much grief and I've only just started weeping.” She was going through a proper catharsis.'
The list goes on: people have found the experience too intense and needed to leave; there have been impromptu toasts from audience members; some have got up and joined Dufty and Hoffman in the exhilarating moment where they run around the table in pursuit of a memory of youthful love; more than one person has got in touch with the company afterwards to say 'Love Letters…' empowered them to propose; once an entire elderly audience slowly joined together to sing along to Vera Lynn's 'We'll Meet Again' ('just beautiful').
Though each dedication will be specific to somebody in the room, the anonymity turns 'Love Letters' into a communal experience: at this mercurial show's best, every declaration of love and sorrow resonates with everyone in the room. It is a marvellous piece of theatre that blowtorches away Britishness and forces you to feel.