It’s a long time since I turned the page of an actual book as opposed to swiping with my finger, and as for writing a letter (with a pen and paper) to a friend, well I’m not sure I ever have. Helene Hanff’s 84 Charing Cross Road, which has itself was originally a book, and more recently a film, is a glorious time capsule embodying a world gone by.
Failed playwright turned television writer Helene Hanff strikes up a friendship with Frank Doel and the staff of Marks & Co book shop, despite them living on opposite sides of the Atlantic. What begins as the New York based writer mail-ordering from the antiquarian book shop in London, develops in to a deep and touching friendship, with Hanff even sending food parcels during rationing, while the grateful Brits respond with Yorkshire pudding recipes and snippets of life in Blighty.
Beginning in 1949, and spanning some twenty years, the entire story is told through letters swooshing back and forth across the Atlantic, accompanied, at least on the east to west journey by rare books. What makes this story so wonderful is that it is entirely true, the detailed staging makes it feel like you’ve stepped back in time, and walked through the doors of Marks & Co, which was located at the eponymous address.
Though appearing on the same stage, the London bookshop and the cramped New York brownstone feel all of their 3000 miles apart, as director Richard Beecham successfully differentiates the two in the opening minutes. Whilst in design, the orderly book shop, clad in dark wood contrasts nicely with the bright, but cluttered apartment.
Stefanie Powers, better known for her TV roles, gives a wonderful performance as Hanff, teasing the stuffy Englishman with a wicked sense of humour. Her character says she feels closer to London, and Powers looks right at home on the British stage.
Clive Francis, who has taken on the role of Frank Doel in previous productions, is marvelous, it’s lovely to watch the character relax and develop this friendship as the years pass. The remainder of the cast take on the various roles of shop staff, as well as providing some musical accompaniment.
In an ironic twist, this form of mail-order may have marked the end of the traditional book shop, and 84 Charing Cross Road presents us with a world that is almost entirely gone. It’s possible that generations to come will watch this play, unable to recognise most of it.
Yes it’s old fashioned, of course it is, but that doesn’t mean 84 Charing Cross Road isn’t still relevant, because behind the characters love of literature, wrapped in mundane day-to-day conversations, we can see kindness and warmth, and learn a lesson about leaving things too late. This play bursts with nostalgia and it is so easy to fall in to the gentle correspondence, captivated by its simplicity, and forgetting about email and e-readers, for a couple of hours at least.