“A Brief Encounter with Celia Johnson and Peter Fleming”
If, like me, you’re a sucker for World War II, British, home front nostalgia (let’s not even get into the American side of the equation), you’re sure to be charmed—if not necessarily overwhelmed—by Posting Letters to the Moon, a slight epistolary play, both amusing and touching, compiled by Lucy Fleming, being shown as part of the Brits Off Broadway season at 59E59 Theaters.
But what I knew of Dame Celia--that she was the luminous costar (opposite Trevor Howard) of one of the great romantic films of its time, Noel Coward’s Brief Encounter, directed by David Lean--was enough to spark an interest in learning more about her life during the years leading up to that 1945 classic.
|Lucy Fleming. Photo: Carol Rosegg.|
Lucy Fleming, wearing slacks, a white, silk top, a pearl necklace, with her ash blonde hair cut short, and Williams, tall, whitehaired, and high-cheekboned, wearing a blue suit with an open-collared shirt, make a decidedly elegant couple as they sit at either side of a vase of flowers on the small stage in Theater C. Their black directors' chairs bear the names of Peter Fleming and Celia Johnson in bold white letters.
|Simon Williams. Photo: Carol Rosegg.|
Following a casual introduction by Williams, the letters are read from lecterns (an occasional stumble can thus be forgiven) in posh accents and perfect diction from which emanate the actors’ obvious class credentials. When necessary, the circumstances behind the letters are explained by one or the other.
Projections on a screen directly behind the actors show, in addition to a picture of the various postmarked envelopes in which the letters were sent, an assortment of interesting photos. Mainly, they’re of either the dashing, uniformed Peter, Johnson herself, or various family members, especially their son, Nicholas, born in 1939.
While Peter was off serving as an intelligence officer in various European cities before being stationed in India and Burma, Celia hosted a large number of family members, several of them displaced because of the conflict, at her rural house. Meanwhile, she made several movies (In Which We Serve, Dear Octopus, This Happy Breed) and worked as an auxiliary member of the local police force. The letters, none of them especially dramatic, were the chief means of correspondence between husband and wife, who barely got to see each other between 1941 and 1945, although a brief encounter late in the war resulted in their second child, Kate, born in 1946. Lucy herself arrived a year later.
Within the interstices of the letters, filled with obviously sincere terms of endearment that attest to their mutual love, we hear of the kind of everyday activities and events that filled Celia’s days, along with comments on the films in she was acting. Laughter strikes now and then, especially when something off-color is discretely alluded to. The dropping of famous (or once-famous) names, like that of Celia’s close friend, comic actress Joyce Grenfell, stirs the usual light buzz of “ahs” from those who recognize them. Most interesting for many, of course, are the letters describing the filming of Brief Encounter, about which Celia offers lovely personal tidbits, accompanied by several photos.
Obviously, not much of Peter’s work as an intelligence officer is provided in the letters (although we learn some of it from Williams), but he comes off as a rather capable and decent chap. Despite the hardships the couple must have endured, he in the steamy jungles of South Asia, she dealing with multiple relatives (including a brood of 8 kids), with her husband gone for years on the other side of the world, about the only thing of which we hear complaints concern the succession of cooks who come and go in the Johnson household.
Peter Fleming and Celia Johnson exemplify the British stiff-upper-lip pluck that got their country through the war. Nothing very dramatic happens but the letters, which represent a practice rapidly disappearing in the age of emails and texting, are a continual delight to discover and a distinctly sentimental pleasure to hear in the gracefully modulated voices of Lucy Fleming and Simon Williams.
59E59 Theaters/Theater C
59 E. 59th St., NYC
Through June 2