Lichfield Garrick Studio – Tuesday 3 October 2017
Swans, Spooks and Shakespeare in the Studio
I went to the Garrick Studio last night to see their current production of ‘Letters to Emma’ which runs until Saturday 7 October.
It’s billed as a ghost story, which it is, but it is much more than that – it has comedy, pathos, drama, history and romance and it makes you laugh, cry, gasp, speculate and ruminate.
The story spans the generations, linking Lichfield of the late 18th century to the Lichfield of 2017 and tells the story of 21st century local girl Emma and her desire to sort her troubled young life out in the complex, technical world of social media while attempting to become fit and healthy and write her university dissertation.
Emma has found herself isolated from her ‘real’ friends and family and has taken solace in the friendship of the virtual world, living her life through Facebook, twitter and Instagram. As part of this she is tasked with writing her dissertation by her university lecturer and, after looking at the lives of key female figures in history, decides to write about Lichfield’s Anna Seward, the celebrated writer and poet, who lived in the Bishop’s Palace in the cathedral close and was an acquaintance of Samuel Johnson, Erasmus Darwin and David Garrick.
As she researches Anna she starts to become more and more fascinated by her subject and then starts to hear mysterious voices in her head and see ghostly images on her social media platforms – is this Anna herself, reaching out across the centuries to her young researcher? Or is this Emma’s imagination playing tricks on her, caused by a mixture of depression, medication, lack of sleep and social and work deadlines that she cannot make?
Meanwhile, in the Lichfield of the 1790s, Anna Seward is writing letters to an imaginary friend, also called Emma, imploring her to live her life in the respectable way and follow the politically-correct conventions of a young girl in Georgian times. But is Anna writing directly to the 21st century Emma using the power of the internet?
The play is a two-hander with Lizzie Wofford as the modern day Emma and Heather Westwell as Anna Seward. They appear alongside each other on stage with Emma tapping away on the laptop keyboard and recording her life (and the life of her 71 year old gran!) on e-photos and tweets while Anna sits thoughtfully in her study recording her thoughts and opinions using quill and parchment. Initially they seem physically unaware of each other’s presence but the two generations do eventually come together in the second act for a wonderful meeting of minds as they both struggle (as do the audience!) to work out who is imaginary and who is real.
Lizzie Wofford is fantastic as Emma, showing all of the emotions of a young person in turmoil, in one moment leaping onto the treadmill to pound out her dream to run a marathon and the next slumped in front of the blue screen as she receives another harrowing e-message.
Heather Westwell’s role as Anna is very restrained, thoughtful and considered but with flashes of humour as well as indignation and frustration as a 18th century woman trapped by the restrictions of the male dominated times. Should she write the book and poems that she longs to create – or should she ‘know her place’ and play the harpsichord with her friend (and lover?) John Saville?
This play keeps you enthralled and entranced from start to finish and there are plenty of shocks, revelations, laughs, one liners, word-play, electronic wizardry and gizmos to keep all ages entertained. It is packed with historical references on a national and local level – as well as Johnson, Garrick, Seward and Darwin there are references to Garrick’s leading lady actresses Susannah Cibber, Hannah Pritchard and Sarah Siddons (who appeared on a temporary stage at the Lichfield Guildhall in the 1780s and encouraged her friend Anna Seward to campaign for a dedicated theatre to be built on Bore Street in 1790 – and who has a housing block named after her on Swan Road!).
At the end of the second act the audience are left with an 18th century-21st century ‘who-done-it’ conundrum. Who is real and who is not? Which of them exists and which doesn’t? We know what happens to Anna Seward from the history books – but what happens to young Emma?
The play is written by a local Lichfield writer Carolyn Scott Jeffs and is a complex, clever, witty, charming and thought provoking triumph. It’s directed with the usual aplomb by the Garrick’s Artistic Director Tim Ford and he makes sure that the tension and dramatic effects never let up from start to finish. The play is performed in the Studio theatre which always makes for an intimate performance (I love the fact that you can see every emotion in the players’ faces) and the lighting and music (composed by Thomas Preston) perfectly complement the mood and atmosphere of the piece.
This is a story set in Lichfield, written by a Lichfield writer, starring a Lichfield actor with a host of historical Lichfield references and characters and about a hugely influential Lichfield writer and poet of the 18th century – the Muse of Britain, the Swan of Lichfield – Anna Seward. If you love drama, love a mystery, love local theatre, love poetry, love a ghost story, love suspense, love history and love Lichfield – then Letters to Emma is for you!
Letters to Emma is on at the Studio theatre, Lichfied Garrick nightly until Saturday 7 October 2017 – tickets and information are available at: