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84 Charing Cross Road

13 June 2018

A Gentle and Subtle Mood-Piece

84 Charing Cross Road

by James Roose-Evans, from the book by Helene Hanff

Cambridge Arts Theatre Productions and Lee Dean (in association with Salisbury Playhouse) at Richmond Theatre until 16th June, then on tour until 30th June

Review by Mark Aspen

When I was a student in London in the 1960’s, I used to visit the old bookshops that were a feature of Charing Cross Road (sadly almost all now gone, trampled by the Amazon behemoth). I even started a small collection of Seventeenth Century books (it was possible then for a few shillings). The familiar ambience of these treasure-troves came flooding back to me when the Richmond Theatre curtain opened on the Cambridge Arts Theatre’s amazingly authentic set for 84 Charing Cross Road, a play set in the two decades from 1949 to 1969. The experience of designer Norman Coates and his team really shows clearly in the meticulous period detail which is spot on in every particular and atmospherically lit by Chris Davey. I was of one accord with the character in the play that describes the shop as smelling “musty, dusty, oaky”, an aroma of the imagination.

84 Charing Cross Road tells of real a real-life correspondence, which lasted all of those twenty years, between Helene Hanff, an American writer, and Frank Doel, the chief buyer of Marks and Co, antiquarian booksellers, whose shop was situated at the eponymous address. The play is based on a book written by Helene Hanff herself, part autobiography in effect and developed from the original letters the two exchanged.

Hanff was an anglophile and obsessed with English literature and the classics. When the correspondence began, she was an earnest 33 year old from Philadelphia, then living a reclusive life as a literary hack in New York City, ensconced in an old and cold apartment block. Doel was 41 years old, living with Nora, his second wife of two years, in a London suburb. He was a modest man, somewhat reticent, whose only interest outside his work and family was committee membership the Society of Antiquarian Booksellers’ Employees, sometimes known jokingly (presumably they sometimes let their hair down) as “The Bibliomites”.

Twenty years of pen-pal letters between an ascetic and impoverished spinster and a reserved and ostensibly dull middle-aged man hardly seems the stuff of gripping theatre.
BUT, with inspired directing by Richard Beecham and cracking first-class acting, 84 Charing Cross Road becomes a beautiful and engaging gem of theatre. Certainly, it is almost entirely plotless, and every character is so dammed nice, but freedom from overarching dramatic tension releases it to be what it is, a gentle and subtle mood-piece.

However, then action is impelled by a number of driving forces. There is the cultural differences between the brash casual approach of Americans and traditional British diffidence and decorum, which the pair seek to bridge and understand. There is an intellectual impetus, and there is the growing sense of affection between the two protagonists.

Hanff was inspired to study fine literature by the works of Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch and found a particular affinity to John Donne. She began seeking out rarer works of literature that she had not been able to find in New York. An advertisement in the New York Saturday Review of Literature drew her attention to Marks and Co. When she contacted the shop, she soon found a highly knowledgeable soul-mate in Frank Doel.

84 CC Rd 1

Californian actress, Stefanie Powers is an Emmy and Golden Globe winner, but she is clearly equally at home on the stage. She inhabits the role of the direct-speaking Helene Hanff with a relaxed naturalness. Hanff’s straightforward wit and easy-going attitude strides out from Powers’ acting. Pithy aphorisms and sharp one-liners are delivered with ease and great comic timing. She puts across Hanff’s mixture of pragmatism and irritation in the semi-jocular acerbic remarks that sometimes follow from Doel’s slowness to respond to her requests.

 

West End and National Theatre veteran, Clive Francis, a much-liked local actor, excels in the role of Frank Doel. His suitably understated portrayal of the unassuming and gentlemanly Doel has the soft touch of one who keeps his feelings well buttoned-up. Yet Francis is able to show us the implied developing emotions of this man through subtle expression and body language. He is, in spite of himself, falling in love, in a pure and platonic sense, with Hanff. So there is the little suppressed smile, the slightly fleeter gait, a hidden jauntiness, as the stiff upper lip relaxes.

84 CC Rd 6

These are two powerful actors with a palpable chemistry that works in pointing up a contrast between them as the opposites attract. They also are both able to show the gradual effect of the twenty years on their physicality. Time also shows them coming closer together in other ways. (Doel takes to wearing loafers rather than Oxfords as his footwear in the later years, a transatlantic nod.)

The other five members of the cast play the rest of the staff at Marks and Co, who are gradually drawn in by the intriguing correspondence with the eccentric American, and in fact some of whom in due course correspond with her directly. Hanff begins to take a proprietorial interest in the staff when she discovers the post-war exigencies of London life. It is easy to forget that London in the forties and early fifties was a place of austerity; that is real austerity, food-shortages and rationing (not the so-called austerity of modern times that dissident politicians like to whine about). Hanff sends them food parcels, Christmas and Easter gifts, which are genuinely appreciated: dried egg powder, tinned ham, which they generously and unstintingly share.

However, the rest of the cast are far more than supporting actors. They flesh out the three-dimensional body that is the living corpus of Marks and Co. Moreover they are all accomplished instrumentalists playing live incidental music as part of the action. Screen composer, Rebecca Applin as musical director uses carefully chosen music to heighten the nostalgic mood and to mark the passage of the seasons and of the years. Another nice little punctuation mark is sound designer Chris Warner’s “pzz-ung” sound as the next letter is opened, the crisp turning of a page in a book.

84 CC Rd 3

Samantha Sutherland plays Cecily Farr, one of Doel’s assistants, whose joyous exuberance at the arrival of each letter is infectious. Loren O’Dair has the marvellously differentiated double roles as Megan Wells, Doel’s quiet and mousey secretary and as the self-assured and elegant Maxine Stuart, who, on a trip from New York, visits the shop incognito on Hanff’s behest to report back on what she sees, a report that only fuels Hanff’s romantic view of London. Equally well differentiated doubling by William Oxborrow as the elderly bookseller George Martin and a young porter, and Ben Tolley’s Bill Humphries and Alvin paint an authentic period background. Fiona Bruce, in a secure performance as the librarian Joan Todd completes the staffing of Marks and Co.

One wonders what we have lost by technological “advances”. An e-book can never deliver the sheer aesthetic experience described by Hanff as she receives an antiquarian book, the tactile pleasure of handling the stiff smooth pages and the joy at examining the tooled leather cover. It is a sensual pleasure worth infinitely more than its monetary cost. (Incidentally, “translating the money”, as Hanff puts it, gave 35p for each dollar in 1949. She would now get 75p of value!)

Beauty has more value that money is a lesson that we can learn from this play. Another is do not leave things until it is too late. Hanff, throughout the twenty years, is planning a trip to London, eagerly awaited by all at Marks and Co, but things get in the way: dental bills, rent increases, writing deadlines. Meanwhile, the tenor of the correspondence becomes more personal, albeit in microscopically minute steps. Doel is meticulous in adding “on behalf of Marks and Co” to his signature (initially just FPD). It is years before first names are used. Then Frank signs a letter “love Frank” a few days before Christmas. It was his last. He died of peritonitis following a ruptured appendix on 22nd December and was buried on New Year’s Day 1969.

His loss presents one of the most poignant scenes in the play, with Powers immensely touching depiction of Hanff’s controlled grief at learning of his death from an official letter from the firm.

84 Charing Cross Road is a remarkable work of art in its revelation of controlled passion and in its subtlety of approach. In today’s world where everything is explicit, discretion is as refreshing as the spring rain in a London street. This is delicate theatre for the discerning palate. If so much of theatre nowadays is Vindaloo with full-fat coke, this is a glass of vintage Muscadet-sur-Lie with fresh Dover sole. Oh, and talking of the former, the premises at 84 Charing Cross Road are now occupied by McDonalds. O tempora, O mores!

Mark Aspen
June 2018

Photography by Richard Hubert Smith

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From → Drama, Reviews

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