84 Charing Cross Road
Reviewed – 11th June 2018
“perseverance rewards with a wistful poignancy that lingers long after the curtain call”
“84 Charing Cross Road” is a most unlikely success story. It started in the early seventies as a slim volume by a little-known, middle-aged American writer, Helene Hanff. Simply a collection of letters between the impecunious book-lover Hanff, in New York, and the staff of an antiquarian bookshop in London, it became a bestseller. As well as a BBC television series, and the Mel Brooks film starring Anthony Hopkins and Anne Bancroft, it also enjoyed a long run in the West End with James Roose-Evans’s award-winning stage version.
This revival, quite rightly, makes no attempt to dust off the sense of the period and remains faithful to the sensibilities of Roose-Evans’s adaptation of the original material. For some, this might make for rather gentle viewing, but perseverance rewards with a wistful poignancy that lingers long after the curtain call.
The correspondence spans two decades – from Britain’s post-war austerity to the height of the Swinging Sixties – and is full of affection, humour and humanity. It starts in 1949 as a straightforward business correspondence with Frank Doel when Helene Hanff sends a wish list of rare books she’d been unable to acquire in New York. Disarmed by the quirky, outspoken Hanff, the letters from the business-like Doel grow less formal, until he finally addresses her as “Dear Helene”. And for her, he becomes “Frankie”.
Clive Francis, as Frank Doel, captures this quintessential Englishness – and it is a joy to watch the gradual transformation as he sheds his inhibitions and relaxes. His self-conscious and sometimes clumsy attempts at familiarity contrast with Helen’s relaxed candour. The teasing tenderness between the two defines Britain and America’s ‘special relationship’. Designer Norman Coates strengthens this unity with an ingenious set that splits the stage in two, highlighting the contrast between the two worlds.
Stefanie Powers, as the chain smoking, unsuppressed Hanff, has a naturalness and comfort that rules the stage. For various reasons, mainly financial, her attempts to fly over to London are repeatedly thwarted. Powers never quite evokes the genuine frustration at this, whereas Francis wonderfully expresses Doel’s wordless disappointment in a perfectly observed and understated performance. And when we know it’s too late, we suddenly perceive how he has visibly aged and is silently resigned to the moving epilogue that is to follow.
Fine support comes too from an ensemble who join in the correspondence, adding splashes of colour with snippets of their own affairs. That they all sing and play instruments is a device that heightens the emotional punch, especially when they come together for a chorus of ‘Abide With me’. It is a kind of eulogy not just to the friendship, but to an era and a way of life that has passed away.
One can’t help wondering how the relationship would have progressed in today’s age of social media. Helene observes that she “made friends I never met”, an anachronism which takes on a whole new meaning in today’s ‘Facebook’ climate. But we get the impression that these characters would have eschewed the internet, at the risk of being labelled old fashioned. This show runs that risk too, but that is its charm. Rich in fine observation; its soft cadences and its realism are the perfect antidote to the harsh, staccato rhythms of the digital world.
Reviewed by Jonathan Evans
Photography by Richard Hubert Smith
84 Charing Cross Road
Richmond Theatre until 16th June
Previously reviewed at this venue