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84 Charing Cross Road

by on 24 October 2019

Precious Gentle Material

84 Charing Cross Road

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

SMDG, Hampton Hill Theatre, until 26th October

Review by Eleanor Lewis

84 Charing Cross Road is one of those mysterious dramas which is difficult to ‘sell’ to someone who knows nothing about it. What’s it about for example? Helene Hanff, a writer in New York, corresponds with Frank, the manager of a bookshop in Charing Cross Road from whom she is buying books, over a period of roughly 20 years. What happens? Through their letter writing Helene and Frank become friends. That’s it really, but to those familiar with it it’s so much more. This true story is loved by many people and has been successfully adapted for radio, television, the stage and in 1987 was made into a BAFTA-winning film starring Anne Bancroft and Anthony Hopkins.

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All of which is a tough act for St Mary’s Drama Group to follow, but they have risen to the challenge, and with some style. The stage at Hampton Hill Theatre is gently divided into two sections with the bookshop occupying the larger area. The shop, furnished with dark brown furniture including desks and well stocked bookshelves, is suitably atmospheric. Malcolm Maclenan’s soft lighting completes the look and even the vast, strangely coloured green doors don’t look out of place.

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Miss Hanff (Jooz Connery) sits at her typewriter in her messy, New York apartment on a raised platform on the other side of the stage. She and Frank (Andy Smith) in turn read out the letters they send to and receive from each other, each interaction perfectly paced. Frank reacts to each letter either to himself or sometimes with the staff in the shop. Helene reacts to herself, engaging the audience but without breaking the fourth wall. They are in a kind of suspended conversation without directly, physically addressing each other.

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The staff in the shop are an essential part of the stage adaptation and a considerable asset to this production. They have very few lines and are basically required to look as if they work in a bookshop, and this they succeed in doing to great effect, chatting quietly to each other, creating invoices and taking things to and from the stockroom. Hannah Few, Julie Davis, Rodney Osmond and Graham Beresford deserve credit for the natural, realistic background they have managed to create and which completes the period feel of a mid-twentieth century London bookshop.

Helene and Frank’s correspondence begins in 1949 and ends in 1968. Miss Hanff, as the London booksellers initially call her, loves English writers. She favours John Donne, Samuel Pepys and others but overall she has a love of books themselves, “such soft vellum and heavy cream coloured pages” as opposed to what she calls the “dead white paper” of American volumes, and Frank and the staff at Marks & Co understand this. As they all get to know each other Helene sends the bookshop staff food parcels while rationing continues in the UK after the war. Frank’s letters become less formal and other members of staff write to Helene.

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Various major events are noted. A new Queen is crowned, the Beatles arrive with the sixties “We watch it all from a very safe distance” Frank remarks whilst looking out of the door at the pilgrimage to Carnaby Street. This all takes place via the mail though, before the days of email and the internet. None of these people meet. Helene tries to visit London but is thwarted once by a need for expensive dental treatment, later by the expense of moving to a new apartment. An actress friend (Gina Way) visits the shop and reports back to her but it is only after Frank’s death that Helene herself finally makes it to the shop in Charing Cross Road.

ChXRd259Andy Smith’s performance as Frank was understated and highly effective. To portray on stage a reserved, educated Englishman with a love of books cannot be simple but it’s certainly not beyond Mr Smith who also managed to grow gradually older over the course of the second act. (I would very much have liked Frank to have been equipped with an overcoat that fitted easily over his shoulders too but nothing is ever perfect!)

ChXRd794The outgoing, witty and warm-hearted New Yorker Helene Hanff was played intelligently by Joolz Connery without either sentiment or over-exuberance, and the developing friendship between Helene and Frank was believable. It is difficult to identify exactly what makes 84 Charing Cross Road so uniquely engaging to its readers but one element may be because it’s not a love story, it’s a friendship story and those don’t get told very often.

ChrgXRd Archive3.jpgI wonder whether this work still communicates with anyone under the age of about 40 who probably has no idea of the joy of receiving a letter, particularly a letter from someone who’s good at writing them. Time will tell I suppose. There is a plaque in Charing Cross Road marking the place where the bookshop stood, it is now a McDonalds.

84 Charing Cross Road is precious material to those who know it and St Mary’s Drama Group has done justice to a small but greatly valued gem of 20th century writing. Highly recommended.

Eleanor Lewis
October 2019

Photography by Bill Bulford and Bookseller Archive

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