Posting Letters to The Moon brings a heartfelt performance to the Brits Off Broadway festival at 59E59 Theaters. Compiled by Lucy Fleming, the daughter of British actress Celia Johnson and an actress herself, Posting Letters to The Moon is a reading of letters between her parents during World War II. Johnson, best known for the 1945 David Lean film Brief Encounter, for which she was nominated for an Oscar, was married to Peter Fleming, an accomplished writer and explorer; he was also the brother of Ian Fleming, the creator of James Bond. Lucy Fleming and her husband, Simon Williams, an actor best known as Mr. Bellamy in Upstairs, Downstairs, read the parts of her parents.
The letters depict lives in wartime through the eyes of a couple separated by the conflict. Peter Fleming worked in military intelligence during World War II, in the Netherlands, Burma and India. Celia relocates to their home in Oxfordshire, along with her sister, sister-in-law, and eight children.
The audience gets an inside view of the love and respect the Flemings have for each other. The letters are beautifully written with elegant language that captures their emotions. Peter Fleming writes from New Delhi, “You really do write the most lovely & absorbing letters & when I get them my war-scarred, shark-infested face lights up as I tear them open with unaccustomed fingers stained with the dishonourable & generally hirsute ink of GHQ.” His description paints a picture of wartime while expressing his love and devotion to Celia.
Their letters equally tell the story of how civilians attempted to continue with everyday life. During the introduction, Lucy Fleming describes theater life in London. During 1940 she appeared in a stage version of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, opposite Margaret Rutherford, in an uncharacteristically villainous role as the housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers. During the show, Johnson writes, “London was bombed nightly but the theaters remained open. If the air raid alert had not been lifted by the end of the play the audience from the Queen’s would join that of the Globe Theatre next door where the actors would try to entertain them until the all-clear. This brave and popular run ended when a bomb fell on the theater in September—luckily after midnight.” It’s fascinating to hear that those who stayed behind were still interested in theater and, even more, made a conscientious effort to maintain normalcy. It was her stage work that brought her the notice of Noël Coward, who was just beginning his writing/directing collaboration with director Lean on their four films. She was cast in In Which We Serve and This Happy Breed, before their final masterpiece, Brief Encounter.
The Flemings’ marriage was resilient. Celia fills in Peter on home-front hardships, such as gasoline and food rationing. For a holiday luxury, she “acquired a turkey at the eleventh hour due to my friends the police. There are many unexpected advantages in being friends with detectives.” The letters allow for their connection to deepen and grow. Their personalities jump off the pages, and the audience learns that Celia often worries about her performances and sometimes her age. She discovers a difference with her Brief Encounter costar, and she writes, “Trevor Howard is a new one on everyone, and did I tell you the really terrible thing about him, which is that he is eight years younger than I am. When I first realised it I nearly fainted with shock and horror, but now I am getting acclimatised and treat him like a mother.” Her humor and lightheartedness are delightful.
One may even say Johnson is observant beyond the times: “There is a very interesting person at the studio who I am informed used to go to the Ladies six months ago but now goes to the Gents. That is the extent of my knowledge but you will agree that it gives food for thought.” She is commenting on a gender-identity issue years before it enters mainstream consciousness.
Despite spending several years apart during the war—although Peter does get occasional military leave—their letters are not downers. They are light and romantic, evoking nostalgia for a war time with clear-cut right and wrong, as well as victors and vanquished. The letters represent a lovely relationship and show how love can not only survive distance but also severe turmoil.
Lucy Fleming and Williams give warm and talented performances, as one can imagine they would, reading from her family’s history and sharing their treasures. It is an evening that takes us back to the lost and sentimental art of letter writing—where one can listen to great lines such as, “Saying goodbye is a thing one gets worse and worse at with practice.”
Produced by Jermyn Street Theatre in association with Lucy Fleming, Posting Letters to the Moon plays through June 2 at 59E59 Theaters (59 East 59th St., between Park and Madison). Evening performances are at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday; matinees are at 2:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Single tickets are $25; to purchase tickets, call the 59E59 box office at (646) 892-7999 or visit www.59e59.org.