helene smile

Stefanie Powers as Helene Hanff. Pictures: Richard Hubert-Smith

84 Charing Cross Road

Malvern Theatre


In these days of instant communication, the art of letter writing has been somewhat lost in a sea of Facetime and Snapchat. More’s the pity, as nothing quite replaces the far more emotive and considered nature of good old pen and paper.

Helene Hanff's personal and often moving account of a New York’s writer’s 20-year correspondence with the manager of a London bookshop serves to beautifully demonstrate the power of letter writing and the real effect it can have on people’s lives.

Without even meeting, connections are made, and friendships formed here, all through the sending and receiving of a letter.

Plot wise, its delightfully simple - giving the audience more time to take in and savour what is being said rather than follow ever changing twists. Aspiring New York writer, Helene Hanff (Stefanie Powers), satisfies her voracious reading appetite by ordering books from Marks & Co, a London bookshop, run by an initially straight laced and appropriately formal, Mr. Frank Doel (Clive Francis )

As time goes on, the letters become much more than simple requests for reading material as each recipient finds out more about the other and a genuine friendship begins to form.

In a sense, it’s a courtship - without romance but certainly with genuine respect and even platonic love towards the end. The two are surely destined to meet - a logical progression from years of affectionate correspondence.

James Roose – Evan’s faithful stage adaptation of Hanff’s 1970 book is paced beautifully, giving characters time to really explore and expand the text - essential given its all about the effect of words and their impact on lives.

Frank Clive

Clive Francis as Frank Doel

To make it work from page to stage, there has to be subtle layers and a degree of visual stimulation. As good as it would be as a radio play, it needs more to work as a piece of theatre and that is consistently achieved here.

Stefanie Powers excels as the quirky, ‘tell it like it is ‘, writer, Helene Hanff. Powers harnesses Hannfs’s passion beautifully and fills her delivery with a mix of humour, opinion and truth.

Hanffs’ growing ‘relationship’ with Frank Doel is touchingly conveyed and the stark contrast between brash American and reserved Englishman mellows as the two grow closer, divided by an ocean but united by words.

Clive Francis gives us a kind, immensely likable Frank Doel - a gentleman of manners and routine. As the letters keep coming, Frank’s reserve is replaced by an almost child like excitement at the prospect of the next instalment. Helene’s letters begin to change his perspective and even bring a new purpose to life. Francis rises to the challenge and portrays a 20-year journey with just the right level of subtlety and range. Any relationship needs chemistry and both Francis and Powers have it in spades.

As strong as the two central characters are, the play needs the interaction of other characters to stop it being a series of monologues. Cue the bookshop staff, each with a tale to tell and a vital part to play in moving the story forward. There are some delightfully clever touches from director Richard Beecham here, as the staff not only address the audience with their thoughts and observations, but also show the passage of time and seasons with appropriate musical offerings. Impressive not only vocally but also as more than competent musicians.

Norman Coates’s pleasing design splits the stage equally between Helene’s New York apartment and the Charring Cross bookshop, complete with shelf upon shelf of books and musty corners. One side, New York dis order, the other British neat and tidiness at its finest. A reflection, perhaps, of the central characters.

At times, when good writing meets intelligent acting, theatre can engage, inspire and thoroughly entertain. This is one of those times. Captivating, joyous and utterly delightful. See it. Even better . . . see it and write a letter to someone about it. It may just be the start of something wonderful. To 09-06-18

Tom Roberts


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