Although 84 Charing Cross Road began life as a book by the central character, Helene Hanff, this is a story that has had a varied and long-lasting performance life on stage, television, radio and as a film. This original stage production was adapted by James Roose-Evans, first seen at Salisbury Playhouse in 1981 with Rosemary Leach and David Swift, and revived there in 2015. Clive Francis appeared then and in this touring production, and opposite him this time is Stefanie Powers, known here mainly for her TV and film performances but also an experienced stage actor.
The piece has developed since that first production and now has a slightly expanded cast, who also play the music live, greatly enhancing the play. At its centre, however, remains the epistolatory narrative of the developing relationship over twenty years between an American woman and an older British bookseller and the shop in which he works. We also see Helene’s friend Maxine and various staff at the bookshop, all played convincingly by the talented supporting cast.
The set by Norman Coates shows us the bookshop in all its dusty orderliness, as well as a raised platform for the cluttered New York apartment where Helene makes her living as a script reader and sometime writer. The effectiveness of this dual setting is much enhanced by Chris Davey’s lighting, both in creating atmosphere and in particular indicating change of mood. As the programme article reminds us, letter-writing and bookshops have changed greatly since the time in which the play was set, and indeed since its first production: perhaps that was the thought behind the email swoosh sound effect used each time a letter was sent. This did jar slightly, and those seated on the far left of the auditorium will have been unable to see Stefanie Powers at some points; but these are my only reservations about this impressive production.
At the centre of the play are two actors secure in their roles. Clive Francis gives an extremely subtle un-showy performance, indicating the growing relationship and the character’s advancing years through small touches and delicate changes: to watch him in this role is to see a master craftsman at work. Opposite him is Stefanie Powers, both funny and touching as the writer who yearns to be somewhere else, and finds that release through a connection, on paper, with Frank Doel and the other staff at Marks & Co, Booksellers, only to lose it all, in the devastating final section.
Narratives told through letters are not seen so often these days. They were once a staple of repertory theatre, especially when a small cast production needed to precede the pantomime or a major production, at which point the management would reach for a script like Dear Liar, the play about the correspondence between George Bernard Shaw and Mrs Patrick Campbell. All that was needed then was two reliable actors, a couple of desks and an empty stage.
84 Charing Cross Road is quite different however, especially in this production. This is no static presentation of a correspondence, but an engrossing presentation of a relationship through acted, rather than read, letters and deft directorial touches. Richard Beecham is an experienced director who has made so much more of this script than could have been the case. The books – in many ways the centre of the play – are always correct, with the same volume leaving London and then arriving in New York – no miscellaneous old book props here. The pace is maintained throughout, music is used very well and the sudden crises and shocks are modulated with the realities of everyday life as well as an indication of the passing of time and the arrival of new realities and pressures.
This is an exemplary production of a play that will endure, and it is greatly to be recommended.