Ladies of Letters is a riotously funny, sharply observant comedy, packed with acidic detail that women (and men) navigating ungrateful families and M&S in an unforgiving world know so well.
Irene and Vera meet under a table at a wedding, after consuming too much sherry. Over the ensuing years, they form a hilarious, barbed long-distance friendship.
Tessa Peake Jones plays Irene, an ex-mobile librarian with a flair for taramsalata, and Gwyneth Strong is Vera, a retired medical receptionist, embarking on a new relationship with Bill.
The play opens at Norwich Theatre Royal tonight, here is what Tessa & Gwyneth had o say about working together again and appearing on stage together for the first time.
Q: How exciting is it to be working together again, and on stage together for the first time?
TPJ: It is a lovely opportunity to come back together with a stage adaption of such a timeless classic, Ladies of Letters, and it is truly such a great script. To think it is more than thirty years since Only Fools and Horses premiered and we can now bring these new characters to life is incredibly exciting. Me and Gwyneth are having a brilliant time performing for so many different audiences, it is great to see so many at theatres across the country after the last few years.
GS: Exactly what Tessa said! We have kept in touch and stayed friends since the Only Fools and Horses but getting to work together on stage is a real joy. The process of rehearsing was amazing and now getting to perform together is wonderful.
Q: What do you think your friendship and history together as actors will bring to the show?
TPJ: We obviously had this incredible experience on Only Fools and Horses, and we were there to support each other so much and now we are still here supporting each other. We have so much more to give! I think Ladies of Letters is a testament to how there are so many stories from mature women and bringing our experience to the show feels right. Especially on stage, there isn’t anywhere to hide, and we still get nervous as any actor does but having a friend by your side just brings a certain type of magic each time you perform.
GS: What is the saying? It feels like no time has a passed at all, but at the same time it has lifetime and now we are getting the chance to play these characters. It is strange, it feels like no time has passed at all since we first met and now, we are getting to embody these characters who have a friendship that has cemented itself so deeply. Being in a show is a real opportunity to work with such a close friend in Tessa.
Q: How do you feel to be performing in the new UK tour of Ladies of Letters?
TPJ: Gwyneth and I were both such big fans of the radio and television show, so we jumped at the chance to be involved. It is a joy to get back to the stage to perform Ladies of Letters, speaking for both of us we have missed the buzz of excitement from the audience. The live responses in theatre, the laughter and all the reactions challenge me as an actor, and to be able to bring this show to different venues across the country is a delight.
GS: As any actor would be at this time after the last few years, I am grateful to continue to work and it is great to be back touring in theatre again. I find you exercise a certain muscle on stage, and I am glad I have had the chance to explore these characters with such a lovely company on the Ladies of Letters tour. I have been very fortunate to visit venues across the country, and touring is an aspect of the job which means I can connect with different audiences each week. I understand that audience have missed the experience of going to the theatre. It is important to keep creating, and I think audiences have missed the experience of going to live theatre.
Q: What is the most enjoyable aspect of your character in Ladies of Letters? Can you see anything of yourself in her?
TPJ: Throughout the rehearsal period it was interesting to explore the plot device that our characters Irene and Vera never meet on stage. It is a real frenemies situation between them! The fact this established relationship developed off the back of letter writing shows that even without in-person contact we are able to maintain these brilliantly complicated connections with others. Especially as we have had to live through the pandemic, we haven’t been able to see our loved ones as much as we would like and I think we have all had to keep communication up in different ways which make this adaption even more relatable to audiences.
GS: Throughout rehearsals for Ladies of Letters, we were able to consider the roots of such a close female friendship between Irene and Vera and how we would convey this in a stage adaption. In real life, Tessa and I are great friends, and we’ve had great fun exploring and developing these characters who, while at odds with each other, do have an affectionate emotional connection.
Q: Ladies of Letters was originally written for BBC Radio 4, running for 13 years, and then was adapted into an ITV series. How is the new stage adaption relatable to audiences today?
TPJ: The adaption of the script by Jonathan Harvey really does capture such engaging conversations. You know the complex friendship between these characters in Ladies of Letters is truly timeless. We experience so many moments with them through these letters which are both comedic and life-affirming.
GS: There is a reason why the show was so popular on BBC Radio 4 and why it was turned into an ITV series – just following on from what Tessa has said the script does strike a chord with audiences. The creators of Ladies of Letters Lou Wakefield and Carol Hayman were great observers of life and language – Jonathan Harvey has adapted these conversations between these two women to really represent and illustrate that in a very funny honest and moving way for stage. It resonates with both of us and we hope audiences feel the same.
Q: Why should people come and see Ladies of Letters?
TPJ: Gwyneth and I are having a great time bringing these characters to life in Ladies of Letters and the new stage adaption of the show is still so relatable. It has been such a thrill to be in front of an audience again and share some laughter.
GS: Well as Tessa has said, we are immensely enjoying performing the show and this is actually the first time we have been able to work together since Only Fools and Horses. It feels particularly special after such a tough few years for us all. Being able to perform on stage again alongside one of my closest friends is a real treat and we promise local audiences it will be a wonderfully refreshing night out.