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The Valentine Letters Reviews

The Valentine Letters

The Maltings Theatre, St Albans, 9th to 11th November 2023

The Maltings Arts Theatre in St Albans has steadily assumed a position as one of the most progressive theatres in the southeast over the last decade, with networks extending into London, the midlands and beyond. Innovative and exciting dramas have often been produced at the theatre by the OVO theatre company and many other local production companies.

It has also always been a home for new writing and now Jo Emery Productions presents ‘The Valentine Letters’ by Steve Darlow, based on the book by Frances Zagni, based in turn on letters between her mother Ursula and father, John, whilst a prisoner of war.

Directed and produced by Jo Emery, and narrated by Charlotte Drummond-Dunn as Frances herself, with calm presence.

The trauma of this most reticent of generations, their courage and pragmatism whilst chaos raged, was celebrated by their own words, an effective use of verbatim material deftly assembled into dialogue by subtle editing.

The role of John was taken by Tom Hilton, stoic yet vulnerable. A sure footed performance, boyish yet not gauche, sentimental but not mawkish.

Ursula, was superbly played by Katie Hamilton with style and grace, an everywoman, a rock. A first class performance.

Much more than linked narratives, the company moved together with balletic grace, reacted as one reaching for meaning in the subtext as John’s resolve and health were tested to breaking point.

Lighting and tech, by Dorian Brooks, was creative and enhancing. A nod to Auriole Wells for evocative costumes and props.

Although set now at the outer limit of living memories, the story is as relevant now, some would say more relevant, as the echoes of those twentieth century conflagrations thunder in our ears, and lovers everywhere cling to the comfort of the mundane. Thus, the last words must fall to Ursula.

URSULA: I am filled with dread and anxiety as the battle front gets nearer to you. It’s getting quite unbearable. God keep you safe, my dearest.

I have been occupying my leisure time … by dressmaking … in the evenings we play bridge or Mah-jong! What a lazy life!

The play is based upon the book ‘Geprüft—The Remarkable Second World War Letters of Prisoner of War John Valentine and his wife Ursula’ by Frances Zagni and published by Fighting High

Laura Thomas