It might be sweet and nostalgic, but this stage adaptation of 84 Charing Cross Road lacks momentum and purpose.
I love the idea of two people’s lives and their relationship being played out through letters – it’s warm, honest and affectionate way to get to know the characters and their stories but it is a concept that works better in a book rather than the stage as this production based on Helene Hanff’s book proves.
Taking place across from the late 1940’s up until the late 1960’s, the story follows the developing relationship between Helen Hanff and book shop proprietor Frank Doel, sharing their thoughts on books and their lives across the decades. Unfortunately that is the extent of the story – with nothing else for the audience to react to and sadly makes the whole production feel repetitive.
In Richard Beecham’s production, the bond between the two main characters is clear for all to see and as such makes it warmly affectionate portrait of a friendship over the years. But while this is lovely to witness the way in which the characters both read their letters out loud can make the dialogue feel clunky and the jokes fall flat in places.
This is also not helped to some respect (although it might be different in another theatre) by the awkward set design which for those sitting on the far left of the stage where Helene’s New York office is placed means the majority of the time you can’t see the character at all. Instead, priority is given to Frank’s bookshop – filled with characters who don’t make much of an impact except when playing musical instruments and singing to suggest the changing of the seasons.
However, it has to be admitted that the production does feel like a celebration of literature (as Helene’s numerous lively descriptions of various books reveal) and the English language as well as the nostalgia for the time in which letter writing was a huge part of people’s lives – leading to friendships that in some cases such as this in which the two people in question don’t meet. But this doesn’t feel like a strong enough foundation for a play.
Performance wise, it is Stefanie Powers who is the dominant force – her character’s sparkling intellect and sense of humour bringing the story to vivid life at times. It is a sharp but heartfelt performance. In contrast, Clive Francis delivers a more subtle approach to Frank – he is charming and instantly likeable, but it feels as though the audience don’t get a chance to know him properly as a person except with vague references to his family life.
It is a show that would work better as a two-hander, because the other cast members are rarely given a chance to shine or add anything substantial to the story that unfolds – a real shame as they are enthusiastic throughout. The other reason this is a production would work better as a two-hander, is because it would offer more focus to Helene and Frank’s friendship which is essentially the main purpose of the play.
Overall, while the show has its own charm and is sweetly nostalgic, the sad thing is it doesn’t have enough substance to capture the attention for the two hours.
By Emma Clarendon
84 Charing Cross Road continues to play at Richmond Theatre until the 16th June, before touring to the Oxford Playhouse (18th-23rd June) and Cambridge Arts Theatre (26th to the 30th June).