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Richmond Theatre, London

There are certain things Amazon just can’t do for you, not even with Prime membership. I can’t imagine, for example, having a 20 year correspondence with the algorithm that looks at what you’ve bought and suggests other books you might like. Then again, we can safely assume Helene Hanff would have been left cold by technological developments like Amazon, let alone downloading books straight to a kindle. Convenient it may be, but where was the enthusiasm for the physical object itself – the beautiful binding, the soft vellum, the uncut pages that tell you so much about the previous owner?

All of which makes 84 Charing Cross Road, the story of New Yorker Hanff’s correspondence with a London antiquarian bookshop at said address, something of a period piece. It was a different time, both in the rationing that allocated everyone one egg per month and made a tin of tongue something to be saved for a special occasion, and in the starchiness, though not quite unfriendliness, of English attitudes – Frank Doel has to keep reminding himself to sign off on behalf of Cohen and Marks lest his letters seem too personal, and it’s 20 years before he lets himself use the word “love”. He was, after all, happily married.

Hanff is played here by Stefanie Powers, best known in Britain for 70s TV show Hart to Hart, but we’ll never know if when she and Doel met it was “moyda”, because they never did meet – regular setbacks in Hanff’s finances meant planned trips had to be cancelled, until one day she received the fateful letter from one of his colleagues. Equally unexpected was the success she finally achieved, after years of unrewarding hackwork for TV, on writing an account of their correspondence.

Hanff herself said it was unpromisingly static material for a play, and she’s not entirely wrong about that – almost everything we see is someone reciting to the audience a letter they’ve written, or the addressee reacting to it as we hear it. Still, it’s moving at times, Norman Coates’ set is charming, and Clive Francis skilfully conveys Doel’s gradual ageing throughout the piece. Powers, however, has trouble projecting enough to fill the theatre – an accurate portrayal of someone the programme calls an “enthusiastic” smoker, no doubt, but less than rewarding unless you’re sat near enough to hear her.

  • Drama
  • Written by Helene Hanff, adapted for the stage by James Roose-Evans
  • Directed by Richard Beecham
  • Cast: Stefanie Powers, Clive Francis, Samantha Sutherland, William Oxborrow, Loren O’Dair, Ben Tolley, Fiona Bruce
  • Richmond Theatre, London
  • 11-16 June 2018

About The Author

Reviewer (UK)

Roger has written several plays, which have been performed as far afield as Warsaw, Prague, Pittsburgh and Buenos Aires. One of them, Guilty Secret, has been published by Oberon Modern Plays. He directed his own first play, Why Don’t You Just Sing Jazz?, on the last night of the Grimeborn Festival of Alternative Opera at the Arcola Theatre in 2009. He is the founder and Artistic Director of Two Sheds theatre company, for which he has produced and co-directed Torben Betts' Muswell Hill, Edward Bond's Black Mass and Athol Fugard’s My Children! My Africa!

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One Response

  1. Mel Cooper

    I caught up with the touring production of 84 Charing Cross Road when it came to Oxford, and I have to say that I was captivated. The play reminded me of how much I enjoyed both the original book and the film made with Anne Bancroft, Anthony Hopkins and Judi Dench in 1987 or so. The clever set by Norman Coates seemed to me accurately to evoke both the musty original bookstore and the New York flat of Helene Hanff. I thought the adaptation by James Roose-Evans was firmly faithful to the original book and its sentiment without turning grossly sentimental; and I have nothing but praise for the entire cast, who also played some mean jazz and madrigals and did some singing too. Indeed, the use of the music, from a jazz saxophone to some good chamber music choices, was evocative, apt and very cleverly done by actors who also happen to be good musicians. Above all, I felt that both Clive Francis as Frank Doel and Stefanie Powers as Helen Hanff convincingly captured the essence of their characters. Perhaps they have grown more comfortable with the production since it was in Richmond, but the night I went they were not only completely confident in their performances, you could hear every word. I was especially pleased by Stefanie Powers who reminded me in body language, accent and slightly acerbic wit of similar New York intellectuals I have known. I just hope that she does not get hooked on smoking! I think she and the entire cast deserve much praise. If you know the material already, there will be no upsetting surprises; and if you do not know it, I think you will be charmed – and sent back to the book itself. Richard Beecham has directed the show so that it is remarkably convincing, well-paced and dramatically moving.


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