84 CHARING CROSS ROAD
Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Wednesday 30th May, 2018
In the 1950s, Helene Hanff, a writer living in New York, contacts a bookshop at the eponymous address, in search of an out of print book. So begins a correspondence that lasts a couple of decades. The ever-demanding customer and the stuffy but efficient bookseller establish a friendship over the years, and there is always the promise that one day they might meet in person.
Cambridge Arts Theatre and Salisbury Playhouse bring us this new adaptation by James Roose-Evans, in which all the dialogue is taken from the letters. The passage of time is signalled by the other members of the bookshop staff, coming and going and playing incidental music and traditional songs – This is a nice touch, rather than having Rebecca Applin’s original and wistful compositions on tape. By keeping the bookshop staff busy, director Richard Beecham goes a long way to prevent this wordy show from becoming too static in presentation.
Hollywood and Broadway deity, Stefanie Powers doffs her usual glamour for the comfortable slacks and woolly pullies of the pernickety writer. Hanff’s humour is delivered with a wry twinkle and Powers brings warmth even to the most demanding of her book orders. She looks and sounds great, even in this dishevelled state. Of course, these days, Hanff would trawl the internet for her books and that would be the end of it, but we can appreciate, in our ‘enlightened’ times of social media, the friendships one can strike up with people across the world that you may never meet. Powers commands the portion of the stage that represents Hanff’s apartment – Norman Coates’s detailed, cluttered set evokes the frozen-in-time aspects of all good bookshops.
Clive Francis also excels as bookseller Frank Doel, gradually thawing and loosening up. Even the act of listening to Powers narrate Hanff’s latest missive is imbued with emotion. Of course, being British, Doel is never going to be effusive, but the chipping away at his reserve is sweetly handled, and there is a real sense of affection between the two. Other members of staff chip in with their own letters to Hanff – details of social history are alluded to and the play delivers a strong impression of the way people come and go through life as well as the changing face of life in post-war Britain.
Charming and amusing, this gentle piece turns poignant as it reaches the end, with a final scene that is irresistibly moving. It’s about closeness across distance, and it’s also about anticipation and disappointment, and friendship and loss, and I loved every minute.
A classy production that deserves a larger audience.