Letters to Aberlour

Ostensibly a community play, there can be little doubt that the impact of Letters to Aberlour will be most keenly felt by people from the area in which the play is set, and by those who have some connection to the real-life people upon whom the characters are based. In spite of this, there is more than enough scope in this piece for it to resonate amongst a wider audience. On several fronts, however, this production misses the mark.

The production has potential, but a professional piece needs to be judged by professional standards, and in this case the strong cast is simply not enough to create theatre with any impact.

Let me not be misunderstood. The performances of the actors, across the board, are superb. Playing to an almost empty house in one of the larger Fringe venues this year, the few of us in attendance are given the full commitment and storytelling skill that you would expect from a professional cast of this type. For every minute of the almost two hours we sat through there was no occasion of receiving anything less than their best in a play which, due to its verbosity and constant role-switching, requires the utmost concentration. It cannot be for this that four spectators left before the second act.

The source material for the play covers the letters written to a local orphanage, one which parented First World War soldiers in their formative years before dutifully joining up. By stitching these missives together, there is undoubtedly enough raw material to engagingly present a series of deeply personal accounts, which may bring into an emotional microcosm the wider suffering experienced during those years.

And yet. Despite an excellent cast and a promising premise, the production rather self-implodes. With more blackouts than the Blitz (other World War, I know), there is little to no opportunity for any fluency to develop between scenes. Although by no means a discredited technique, the sheer reliance on this particular mode of transition is disturbingly repetitive at best. When combined with a similar propensity for focusing our gaze in particular areas through the use of freezes, the end result artistically would not stand up to scrutiny in any school or university drama department, let alone in a professional capacity.

Despite best efforts to engage with the array of heroic figures recounting their experiences, the presentation is further scuppered by embarrassingly simplistic mime, audio recordings which are at times indecipherable, and isolated elements of audience immersion – the implications of which are left unresolved. The production has potential, but a professional piece needs to be judged by professional standards, and in this case the strong cast is simply not enough to create theatre with any impact. With some reconfiguration of how the text is transformed from page to stage, and some dramaturgical work on the script itself, the stories of the boys from Aberlour may eventually be told in a fashion befitting their letters. 

Reviews by Joshua Clarke


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The Blurb

Most soldiers in the First World War wrote letters home. But what if you had no family? More than 200 Old Boys from the Aberlour Orphanage joined the war; more than 60 of them were killed. The forgotten voices in the letters they wrote, to the only home many had ever known, are woven into a compelling narrative about the extraordinary extended family created by the orphanage. ‘One of the most profound evocations of a community coming to terms with the horrors of those years … a masterpiece’ (Northern Scot). ‘A deeply moving tribute’ (Berwickshire News). www.newstrides.com