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LESERE – Jermyn Street Theatre, London.

Lesere1921: John and Jane Lesere have put the war behind them and settled into a gentle-paced life of tending a vineyard in France. Their quiet existence is shattered by the arrival of George, an injured stranger who preys on their good nature and seems unnervingly curious about their respective pasts. With a little bit of cold-reading and the theft of a notebook, he skilfully extracts all the ghosts they thought they had laid to rest and forces them into an evening of confessions about their wartime experiences. As innumerable skeletons come tumbling out of cupboards, the masquerade of their idyllic marriage slips.

Although billed as being “Hitchcockian”, its formula is more reminiscent of An Inspector Calls by J.B. Priestley, and while this play certainly matches it for dramatic bombshells, it somehow falls short overall. In the intimacy of the Jermyn Street Theatre (converted into the round for this play), a small room with white painted floorboards is surrounded by an ominous earthy wilderness – complete with gloomy lighting and the sound of howling wind, it requires a leviathan effort to cross this no-man’s-land to the safe haven of the drawing room. What may only be a few small steps might as well be a journey of miles. The shuddering physicality of the actors during these interludes is harrowing to watch, but this device is overused and quickly starts to feel like a bit of a gimmick (a few choice moments would’ve had far greater impact).

On the surface, all three characters seem quite genteel, complete with exquisite cut-glass vowels appropriate for the period; Leon Williams is plucky and hopelessly naive as John, shifting to minor outbursts of rage when under threat. Cassandra Thomas as Jane exudes a virtuous goodness which belies a secretive past, and flickers just beneath the surface in the things that are unsaid. Their onstage chemistry moves from harmonious equilibrium to explosive volatility with surprising ease, as the trivialities of their pasts are sensationalised.

Richard Atwill as George carries the guise of being very affable and congenial, yet gives a very chilling, calculating performance as he pits the couple against each other, sowing seeds of doubt and driving a wedge between them – all with a debonair smile. He revels in their distress, rather like a cat savagely toying with a helpless mouse.  At times the lighting in the first act does feel a little bright which sucks out some of suspense, but by the second act we are treated to the theatrically appropriate levels of gloom.

But for all the acting prowess, it’s never quite clear why George is there in the first place or how he knows so much – or even what he has to gain from any of it; perhaps a deliberate act of Priestley-esque ambiguity to keep us guessing, but it feels as if the final twist in the plot has been withheld from the audience.

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Reviewed 10/07/2015

By Gail Bishop
@gailebishop

7th July – 1st August 2015
Jermyn Street Theatre, London, SW1Y 6ST

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