Mountains of venerable leather-bound books greet the audience: neat, catalogued shelves on the right of the stage; disorderly piles on the left. And so the stage is set for a play of juxtapositions: man and woman; togetherness and solitude; Britain and America. It is only really this last cultural contrast which feels largely anachronistic (and no less amusing for it) at today’s distance from the story’s post-war setting.
Across hundreds of letters and a remarkable 20-year period and, a bond of deep friendship organically develops from a transactional business relationship between an antiquarian London bookseller, Frank Doel (Clive Francis), and his New Yorker client, writer Helene Hanff (Stephanie Powers). Other characters, primarily belonging to Frank’s world, come and go, but this true story is inescapably an epistolary dialogue, and Roose-Evans’ play whole-heartedly embraces that format.
The play is most demanding of Hanff’s role, and Powers admirably gives life to it. Hanff is on the one hand the archetypal New Yorker – vivacious but painfully blunt and familiar from the perspective of her British interlocutor. But she also shows deep sensitivity and is of the two lead characters the more vulnerable: Powers manages this curious paradox with skill. Francis develops Doel’s character, especially in the second act, with a subtlety which is key to giving the play a real emotional poignancy.
Those (such as this reviewer) who have not seen or read 84 Charing Cross Road in any of its previous incarnations will be gripped by the question, posed throughout, as to whether Hanff will ever make her repeatedly deferred trip to England – and of course to her favourite bookshop. The letters pay homage to the pleasure of physical books. It harks back to an era when the choice facing discerning readers was not “Kindle or paper” but which printed edition to opt for, and with it consideration of binding, paper and typeface.
The most powerful passages are the longer, more abstract exchanges, which go to the heart of the protagonists’’ shared love of literature, and one might find these a little too few and far between (rather a lot of time is spent discussing the exchange of food hampers). It’s not important whether you recognise the erudite and rather obscure literary references (who these days has read John Donne?) to appreciate Hanff’s passion for these works.
The UK tour will doubtless be able to rely on strong casting for a work familiar to many; but it is an excellent opportunity for newcomers to a tale which continues to strike a chord. It’s only in Richmond until 16th June, so catch it while you can!
84 Charing Cross Road runs until 16 June at Richmond and then touring until 30th June.
Helene Hanff (Author)
James Roose-Evans (Adaptor)
Richard Beecham (Director)
Norman Coates (Designer)