World Book Night: Letters Live review

April 24, 2014, Article by Richard in Reviews, Theatre & Comedy


A World Book Night event
In association with The Reading Agency
Southbank Centre’s Queen Elizabeth Hall

We have been enamoured for quite some time by Shaun Usher’s superb Letters of Note – first as a website, and then in its quite glorious book form. Add a live event with some of the best actors and writers in the business to the mix and you get a wonderful evening of humour, poignancy and something of a call to arms for the importance of reading.

So it was we headed to London’s snazzy South Bank Centre to celebrate World Book Night in style. Whilst there was hardly a bum note all evening, there were certainly some standout moments. In no particular order…

Matt Berry

As the old cliché goes, I could listen to Matt Berry read from a phone book. There’s something so glorious about that sonorous, booming voice of his that makes everything he says instantly funny. So to have him reading from Matt ‘South Park’ Stone’s po-faced memo to the MPAA was a particular delight.

Clarke Peters

Speaking of fantastic voices, I’d been wondering where I recognised the name Clarke Peters from when I was scanning through the running order before the show started, but as soon as he read the first words from Louis Armstrong’s brilliant letter to a fan, I recognised him as none other than Lester Freamon from The Wire. He captured Satchmo’s voice and the spirit of the letter majestically. Cool Lester Smooth…

Caitlin Moran

Caitlin was her usual brilliant self, and her self-penned letter to her daughter was as brilliant as any other on the night. A particularly wonderful piece of advice was that

life divides into AMAZING ENJOYABLE TIMES and APPALLING EXPERIENCES THAT WILL MAKE FUTURE AMAZING ANECDOTES. However awful, you can get through any experience if you imagine yourself, in the future, telling your friends about it as they scream, with increasing disbelief, ‘NO! NO!’ Even when Jesus was on the cross, I bet He was thinking, ‘When I rise in three days, the disciples aren’t going to believe this when I tell them about it.’

 How ace is that?

James Rhodes

James Rhodes provided a couple of beautiful musical moments as he (hilariously) read letters from Chopin and Schumann and then played pieces by them, without music, from a grand piano. You got the sense that everyone in the room was secretly disgusted at this – how dare someone be so bloody funny and talented and wear such great shoes. The amazing bastard.

Stephen Fry

To be honest, it wasn’t the biggest surprise of the night that the unnamed person reading from Oscar Wilde turned out to be Stephen Fry, but nonetheless he was greeted like royalty, and read from Wilde before returning to recite mark Twain’s deliciously barbed response to a bogus salesman who’d tried to deliver him an elixir of life.


Russell Brand

If we were expecting Stephen Fry to be the most high-profile special guest, that was suddenly all changed when a very late Russell Brand stumbled out onto the stage like a slightly bewildered prince who had wandered into a wing of his palace he’d never been in before. As you would expect, he was the most playful of everyone who read during the night, and managed to riff on the idea that the extended ellipsis in Mick Jagger’s  letter to Andy Warhol was in fact a subtle tribute to the latter creating art out of the mundane. The off he went looking all handsome.

Andrew O’Hagan

RB was always going to be a slightly hard act to follow, but Andrew O’Hagan (stepping in for a poorly Philip Pullman), finished off the evening with a wonderful reading from Kurt Vonnegut’s biting riposte to the headtacher who ordered copies of his books to be burnt.

If ever there was a powerful message about the importance of reading and art, then this last letter encapsulated it perfectly. All in all, this was a fantastic event in the name of a brilliant cause – we can’t wait for the next one.


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