Writer:James Roose-Evans from the book by Helene Hanff
Reviewer: Selwyn Knight
In 1949, Helene Hanff was a young unperformed playwright in New York with a zest for self-improvement. She never went to college but loved the classics and more obscure literary titles. She chanced upon an advert for Marks and Co., an antiquarian bookseller in Charing Cross Road, and promptly wrote asking them about the possibility of ‘solving some of her problems’. Thus began a twenty-year correspondence between Hanff and Frank Doel, the bookshop’s chief buyer – the basis for Hanff’s epistolary novel, 84 Charing Cross Road, which was first published in 1970.
From the off, Hannf is every inch the brash New Yorker with a wicked sense of humour; Doel is the very proper Englishman. As time goes on, a very real affection develops between them as Doel’s letters, while still correct, become less formal. The subject matter ranges well beyond books to discussions about careers (Hanff becomes a successful writer for the small screen), their families and friends, and life in New York and London – even how to cook Yorkshire pudding in honour of an English friend of Hanff’s. We also hear of Hanff’s attempts to travel to see her friends which always seem to get cancelled for work reasons, and a good deal of the play’s jeopardy is in wondering if our protagonists will ever meet in real life.
This is a thoroughly sweet and charming piece when communication with strangers was a gentler, slower affair relying on air mail. There’s plenty of humour, but also, especially in the first act, lots of poignancy. Rationing continued in Britain well into the 1950s, and when Hanff realises how difficult meat, eggs and other luxuries are to obtain, she sends parcels at Christmas and Easter to the shop’s employees, simple items which are met with such joy as to tickle the watcher’s eyes. However, after the interval, as Hanff becomes more established, the pace slips a bit and some of the younger employees of Marks and Co. move on, so the action becomes more pedestrian as it wades towards its dénouement in the 1970s; it could easily lose some of this to get even tighter.
The central characters are, of course, Hanff, brought to us with warmth and wit by Stefanie Powers, and Doel played by Clive Francis. Together they bring the letters to life. Francis is especially impressive as his reserve is chipped away and the joy he feels in this friendship is revealed. Both protagonists demonstrate perfect timing in their delivery, helping us share their emotions. Their performances provide a masterclass in acting.
We do meet the other employees at Marks & Co., among them, Cecily (Samantha Sutherland) whose husband is ultimately posted abroad and Megan (Loren O’Dair), who ultimately emigrates. Sutherland brings a jolly-hockey-sticks enthusiasm to Cecily who also starts a side correspondence with Hanff. The rest of the cast also provides musical accompaniment: always appropriate and never intrusive, the original music of Rebecca Applin adds a further dimension. This is useful as the action is necessarily pretty static on Norman Coates’ detailed split-level set that shows us the warm interior of Marks & Co, and the chaotic interior of Hanff’s apartment. Richard Beecham’s direction is light and ensures the heart-warming nature of the story shines through.
This gentle story brings a little joy into the heart and leaves one with a warm glow. A touch overlong, there are no moments of great drama or jeopardy; nevertheless, it’s an enjoyable and uplifting watch.
Runs Until 2 June 2018 and on tour | Image: Richard Hubert Smith