84 Charing Cross Road adapted by James Roose-Evans from the book by Helene Hanff
St Mary's Drama Group
Hampton Hill Theatre - 24 October 2019
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.
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.
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.
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.
Andy 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!) For full review https://markaspen.com/2019/10/24/chrg-x-rd/
by markaspen on 24 October 2019 Precious Gentle Ma