Last night I fell a little bit in love.
But before I get onto that, there are a few things you should know. Uninvited Guests’ Love Letters Straight From Your Heart sounds, in many ways, like my vision of a nightmare: unapologetic sentimentality, public displays of emotion (emphatically not my thing – I was possibly the sole dry-eyed audience member when I went to see Lovesong) and, worst of all, the premise that in the room of the performance it is always Valentine’s Day. Whether single or in a relationship, the 14th February is a hideously over-commercialised day that I resolutely hate; one of my most vivid Valentine’s Day memories remains digging through stacks of saccharine, heart-studded cards in an increasingly frantic hunt for one to give my then boyfriend of only a couple of months that didn’t declare “I love you”.
Incongruously paired with this cynical, emotionally awkward streak of my personality, I had dangerously high expectations of the show. Everyone I’d spoken to about it had been in raptures, competing to express in superlatives just how much they loved it. And then, on top of all that, I’d been oddly compelled to write reams more than I probably should have done in my dedication (the piece is built around song dedications from audience members to loved ones – but more on that later) and was beginning to squirm at the thought of my nakedly sincere words falling from a performer’s mouth. All in all, the odds were in favour of me hating the whole experience.
And yet, in spite of all the above, I utterly adored it. The idea behind it all is simple enough: in advance of the show, audience members fill out dedications, requesting songs for their loved ones – partners, best mates, family members – and expressing what they mean to them; the performers then read these out and play the songs over the course of the evening, slotting them into a containing structure that gently explores the nature of love. It’s like an odd sort of marriage between participatory performance and Radio 2’s ‘Sunday Love Songs’, but one that strangely, charmingly works.
Entering the space, we’re offered a glass of sparkling wine and invited to take a place at one of two long tables facing one another. The aesthetic is cheap, familiar romance, all red tablecloths and roses, topped off with a glitterball suspended from the ceiling. There’s something of the wedding reception in the layout, an arrangement of the performance space that immediately cultivates the atmosphere of a social event rather than a theatrical one. It’s recognisable, unintimidating – an immediate setting at ease.
Once everyone is seated, performers Richard Dufty and Jess Hoffman take up their places at DJ desks at either end of the two long tables, from which they begin to spar with tunes, lobbing love songs at one another with grins and rolls of the eyes. There’s cheese and passion and raw, piercing heartbreak. But the bared soul of the show, as the songs played by Dufty and Hoffman melt into those selected by audience members, is formed by the dedications of those present. Like me, other audience members (at least on the night I went) seem emboldened by the setting to open their hearts, to share mushy declarations of love or friendship or to wrench out private pain. The company’s description of the atmosphere as something between a wedding and a wake is deeply apt, with both devotion and loss foregrounded, while the space itself shares that loosening of emotions that accompanies these rare events when we allow ourselves to unreservedly feel.
Perhaps surprisingly, given that we are all listening in to the voicing of emotions usually confined to the sphere of the private, Love Letters refuses to cast its audience as voyeurs. There is a sense that we must all give up something of ourselves, all equally drop a barrier that leaves us startlingly level with one another. The most striking way in which this is achieved is through an instruction for audience members to gaze into the eyes of the person opposite them for the duration of Johnny Cash’s ‘First Time Ever I Saw Your Face’, creating an unsettling intimacy that somehow shifts something in the room (if the effect sounds exaggerated, try looking into someone’s eyes for the length of that song; it’s extraordinarily, revealingly difficult). There is, as a result, a sense of the collective, a half-community that will dissolve once we step out of the space but for a brief time reconfigures social rules (again, this looks hyperbolic and cliched as I write it, but I was struck by the way in which people easily spoke to one another after the performance, an ease between strangers that I’ve rarely witnessed in a theatre context).
Central to it all is the music. A shifting playlist that changes every night, the songs are intimately tied up with memories, but these aren’t just restricted to the memories of the individual who has made each request. As we listen to The Smiths, Kate Bush, Joy Division, Elvis, Soft Cell, almost every track unleashes a torrent of my own recollections, conjuring other loved ones with the breathless exhilaration of teenage infatuation or the comfort and warmth of the family home. It also made me think of all the other theatrical moments that are inseparably wedded to particular pieces of music (the trio of extraordinary visual snapshots that accompany ‘Wicked Game’, ‘Golden Slumbers’ and ‘The Last Living Rose’ in Three Kingdoms, the techno underscoring of Beats, the glorious, vodka-fuelled rendition of Nirvana’s ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ in Benedict Andrews’ Three Sisters, plus lots more I can’t quite summon to mind right now), performance memories that pulse with a soundtrack.
There’s a part of me, that niggling, questioning, slightly cynical part, that wants to problematise what Uninvited Guests are doing; to prod at the notion of sincerity within a theatrical frame that is implicitly supported by insincerity and artifice, to raise a skeptical eyebrow at the idea of “liveness” – a word bound up with so many uninterrogated complexities – uniting a group of strangers in a dimly lit room with a shared promise of love. That part of me, however, is overcome by the urge to surrender to the seduction, to believe in the simple beauty of the piece’s premise. At some point, much like with falling in love, there is a moment of giving in, of trusting. And maybe that impulse to give in is exactly what makes Love Letters the gorgeous, giddy, emotionally puncturing experience that it is.