84 Charing Cross Road is a lovely, warm, gentle play that beautifully depicts the differences and similarities between the English and our USA cousins via the much neglected medium of letter writing.
It’s a tricky idea to convert a long-term transatlantic correspondence
between bookworms into a theatre piece, but director Richard Weller and a very talented
cast of Haslemere Thespians convert a smart script into a lovely interplay between a noisy,
sassy, assertive and opinionated New York book lover and the rather restrained staff of an
English post-war bookshop still suffering from rationing, a story that ultimately fades into one
of loneliness, loss and stoical acceptance.
A round of applause for the set before a word has been spoken is always a good start, and
this one was a gem. The beautiful detail in the overall staging and the simple lighting
carefully establish both the connection and the contrast between the noisy and colourful
Helen Hanff, (Sarah Burch), and the more sombre, dusty and restrained bookshop. Burch is
sublime throughout; feisty, noisy, funny, honest and open-hearted, delivering a crackling
commentary alongside her book orders and breaking down the English reserve with her
openness, food parcels and gifts. I would barely have known that she wasn’t a New Yorker.
It’s a bravura performance, right up there with the very best from recent Thespians
productions. Her counterpart, the very proper, gentlemanly and somewhat world-weary
Frank Doel, nicely understated by David Greenwood, learns to adjust to the inrush of life and
energy and slowly thaws as the correspondence continues. And over the course of the play
we realise that, for all the expressiveness and noise of Hanff, and the reserve and propriety
of Doel, both are fundamentally lonely people finding consolation in a shared love of letters
with a distant soul friend. And, despite all the promises, plans and genuine affection, they
never meet. It’s a very moving reminder to get on with life and not keep putting it off.
The other characters provide both movement and depth as they all join in the
correspondence act and knit together like a family, embracing their pen friend as the letters
continue. Jenny Manville’s Cecily and Jo Weller’s Maxine were charming and endearing
smaller roles, deftly done. And kudos to all the other cast members (Mick Bradford, Gemma
Bowles, Matt Fowler, Duncan Gill and Jude Perrett), who spent long stretches on stage
without many lines, but continued to support the action and fill out the fabric of the story. This
is much harder than it looks.
Special mentions for the set design (Linnet Bird) and construction (Graham Perrett and
Simon Manville, David Impiazzi and team), Mick Bradford for the sound effects, Tony Legat
for lighting, Naomi Robertson for styling ‘Cecily’s’ wig, Jo Weller for sterling work on the
authentic period costumes and Guy Davenport for props, all of which served the story
Finally, the mark of good direction is that it leaves no mark, and this is a fine directorial debut
by Richard Weller, who has put together a hugely watchable and enjoyable production.