As unlikely stage hits go, few come unlikelier than Helene Hanff’s chronicle of a correspondence between two bibliophiles. You can almost see the gathering furrows on the brows of stage producers, never mind movie ones, as the author pitches her plotline about, well, that’s it really: two book-lovers writing letters to each other.
A much-rejected author of play scripts, Hanff was nothing if not a clear-eyed expert on her own shortcomings. As she told The New York Times in 1982, “I wrote great dialogue but I couldn’t invent a story to save my neck.” Both parts of this assessment bear the stamp of understatement, but also, and crucially, that of unsparing self-awareness.
In this affectionate and bright-humoured production by Cambridge Arts Theatre, her talent and her lack of it are clearly on display. Ironically so, since much of the dialogue, if it can be called that, comes in letter form. So here is what is termed by the literary types whose outpourings Hanff devoured an epistolary drama.
She writes from her adoptive city of New York to Frank Doel, whose London antiquarian bookshop is located at the address of the show’s title. As you will know if you have seen the 1987 film starring Anthony Hopkins and Anne Bancroft, Doel was seen by the author as an archetype of a certain Englishness bookishness, in which passion co-exists with pedantry and mystical levels of adoration for the beloved object, the book, are clothed in the garb of an accountant.
This passion stands at the heart of the story and is hence the very plot, despite Hanff’s admitted limitations in this area. For in sharing their likes and dislikes in longhand letters across the Atlantic, they are telling each other, and thereby us, so much more about the formative and less well-fingered corners of western culture. It was no less a figure than the academic and author Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, who seems to have inspired Helene in her quest for the enlightening obscurities of the Victorian canon.
How, why, does this eccentric and platonic story endure as it does? On the evidence of Richard Beecham’s spritely production, much of the explanation lies in the sheer drama – yes, drama – inherent in the business of communicating in longhand. In this process of writing to each other about book orders and rare volumes, there are insights into the taxing joys of life in a world still reeling from the effects of war. There are also explosions of rage from Helene: “This is not Pepys’ diary, this is some busybody editor’s miserable collection of EXCERPTS from Pepys’s diary. May he rot. I could just spit. Where is Jan 12, 1668, where his wife chased him out of bed and round the bedroom with a red-hot poker?”
Much of the play’s appeal is surely staring at us from the very screens which have supplanted airmail, junk mail, snail mail and all other forms of pen-and-paper communication. That means of relating, whether for social or business purposes, had hung around for centuries, no matter its historically brief upstaging by the typewriter – remember them?
The letter, with its bespoke hand-making of characters, its literal, utterly non-virtual manufacture of its own form, was a staple (of the admittedly literate classes), and its passing could not have happened as summarily as it has without the setting-in of something like shock and the subsequent urges of nostalgia. For the tome, no less than for the missive. Here is Ms Hanff extolling the sensual joys of book ownership. “The Newman arrived almost a week ago and I’m just beginning to recover…I feel vaguely guilty about owning it. All that gleaming leather and gold stamping and beautiful type belongs in the pine-paneled library of an English country home; it wants to be read by the fire in a gentleman’s leather easy chair – not on a secondhand studio couch in a one-room hovel in a broken-down brownstone front.”
In Norman Coates’ affectionate set, Beecham handles the material with similar respect, split as it is between the two protagonists’ domains: London/New York; Europe/the U.S. Stefanie Powers brings to the role of Helene a finely balanced comedic blend and presents her as the rough-edged romantic that she surely was. As the antiquarian bibliophile Frank, Clive Francis’s portrayal is a model of that English, mid-century, male composure which masked the inner mechanisms of a vastly more complex creature. Not so much repressed as restrained.
The link between them is ingeniously represented by a scene-changing, jetlike whoosh, the very kind which computers make to tell you that your email has been sent. Fine work too from a five-strong supporting cast whose musical skills enable them to turn into a sort of punctuating Chorus. Hanff, who died just before the turn of the millennium, would have had frustratingly little to complain about. She might even have to re-think that line of hers about being bad at plots.
Review by Alan Franks
Based on a true story and adapted from Helene Hanff’s much-loved best-selling book, 84 Charing Cross Road is a tender and heart-warming tale of transatlantic friendship. Spanning 20 years, this bittersweet sweet comedy charts the extraordinary relationship between a vivacious New York writer and a London bookseller.
Through the exchange of humorous and often intimate correspondence between author Helene Hanff (Hollywood and Broadway legend, Stefanie Powers) and bookseller Frank Doel, (Clive Francis – The Crown, The Queen, An Inspector Calls), a snapshot of Britain from post-war 1940’s through to the swinging 60’s is revealed, alongside a touching human story that still deeply resonates today.
This major new UK tour also features Fiona Bruce (The Snow Queen), Loren O’Dair (The Grinning Man, King Lear), William Oxborrow (I Happen To Like New York), Samantha Sutherland (The Recruiting Officer) and Ben Tolly (Dusty).
Stefanie Powers plays Helene Hanff. A star of stage and screen with a career spanning over 50 years, Powers is best known for her iconic role opposite Robert Wagner in Hart to Hart, which ran over five series and eight TV movies between 1979 and 1996. Her extensive film and TV credits include McLintock!, The Magnificent Seven Ride Again, The Rockford Files, The Bionic Woman, The Six Million Dollar Man and The Girl From U.N.C.L.E. Clive Francis’ recent theatre credits include An Inspector Calls (West End), Les Blancs (National Theatre) and Enron; on screen he has appeared in The Queen, Mr Turner and most recently as Lord Salisbury in the award-winning Netflix series, The Crown.
84 Charing Cross Road premiered at the Salisbury Playhouse in 1981 before transferring to the West End and Broadway. It was adapted into a film in 1987, starring Anthony Hopkins, Judi Dench and Anne Bancroft as Helene, who won the BAFTA Award for Best Actress.
84 CHARING CROSS ROAD Listings
18 – 23 June 2018
Box Office: 01865 305305
Cambridge Arts Theatre
26 – 30 June 2018
Box Office: 01223 503333