Based on the novel by Helene Hanff
Adaptor: James Roose-Evans
Director: Richard Beecham
Reviewer: Mark Clegg
In an age of emails, Skype and instant messaging it’s now difficult to remember the not-to-distant past when the main way of people communicating over long distances was writing letters. Such trans-Atlantic correspondences provide the basis for Helene Hanff’s autobiographical book as the New York writer starts a long friendship with London bookshop manager Frank Doel despite being three thousand miles apart and never having met.
Starting in the late 1940s and spanning 20 years, the play is basically a series of short monologues delivered as letters between the two main characters (and a handful written and performed by others scattered throughout). The content of the letters begins quite formally as Hanff writes to the London shop to order a book she cannot source locally. However, as the years pass and the letters continue, Hanff’s abrasive New York sense of humour and amazing generosity (she arranges food parcels to be sent to the staff of the shop while Britain was still experiencing rationing) warm the typically reserved Doel and a touching friendship blossoms as they explore their shared passions for literature.
This synopsis does not really do this play justice. It is a beautifully written piece, although the nature of the script as it bounces from one side to the other means that is a difficult one to stage successfully. However, this is a magical piece of theatre. To begin with, the set is superbly designed, built and dressed, and brilliantly supports the story of the two disparate locations: Hanff’s cramped apartment in New York and the rather grand but musty London shop lined with leather-bound books on oak shelves. These two areas remain together on stage throughout, but the excellent and creative use of lighting perfectly focuses the audience’s attention to wherever it needs to be.
Clive Francis as Frank Doel is eminently charming and sincere. His is the biggest character arc, starting as a bookshop employee responding to a customer in a business-like manner, but slowly over time and thanks to Hanff’s colourful missives, revealing his personality and life through his letters. This wonderful performance is perfectly counterbalanced by Stefanie Powers as Hanff as she paces her apartment puffing on cigarettes, swigging gin and (jokingly) berating “Frankie”. Powers’ energy and personality are infectious to the audience, making this a captivating performance. Thanks to Francis and Powers, the relationship between the two characters is beautifully played out despite there being no real dialogue between them. And don’t worry – the constant reference to obscure British authors and poets is surprisingly palatable, which is as much credit down to the delivery by the two stars as it is anything else. Who would have expected such a big laugh from someone reading Chaucer?!
The five supporting players provide a physical presence and give a few additional letter writers/readers in the shape of two of Noel’s colleagues and a friend of Hanff’s, but this is really a two-hander – and very capable hands they are too. If there are any criticisms to be made it would be that although it is nice to have the supporting players occasionally singing and playing instruments to add colour and context, it is sometimes distracting: the actors are good enough not to need this. Also, the play itself, while absorbing and entertaining doesn’t really offer much dramatic heft: even the tragedy that ultimately ends the relationship feels slightly mishandled and hollow. However, Powers and Francis are excellent and make this an evening which you will spend mostly with a large smile across your face. Recommended.
Runs until 26th May 2018 | Image: Contributed