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84, Charing Cross Road

Helene Hanff, adapted for the stage by James Roose-Evans
Salisbury Playhouse
Salisbury Playhouse

Janie Dee Credit: Helen Maybanks
Clive Francis Credit: Helen Maybanks

I don’t imagine there are many love stories which begin with a letter that starts "Dear Madam" and ends "Yours faithfully" or have a business address as their title.

And if Helene Hanff had known, as she laboured at her typewriter on 5 October 1949, in her unheated New York bedsit, writing articles and scripts and collecting rejection slips, what personal joys, eventual wealth and world-wide recognition her letters (the correspondence continued until 1968) would bring—but then perhaps the book which comprises those letters would never have been written, or it wouldn’t have been the 84, Charing Cross Road we know and love.

The letters to number 84 reflect the ever-present hunger for literature which dominates Helene’s life, while Frank Joel is the man who seeks with gentle courtesy to satisfy her voracious appetite from across the width of the Atlantic Ocean. And so the relationship develops.

During the post-war era, when the UK is experiencing real austerity as the most basic foods are strictly rationed, Helene keeps the staff of 84 supplied with meat and other luxuries. Soon "Dear Madam" becomes "Dear Helene", "Yours faithfully", "Love, Frank". Family news is exchanged and Helene is deluged with invitations to London.

Sadly, work commitments and financial pressures mean that the trip has to be put off many times. Will she get there in the end? We all desperately hope so.

Presenting a play based on a series of letters isn’t going to be easy, though, is it? Director James Roose-Evans, who first adapted the book for the stage at Salisbury in 1981 with Rosemary Leach in the starring role, after which it transferred to the West End collecting awards on the way, found the perfect solution.

He has two sets, Helene’s tiny apartment, with its book-covered walls, is at one
side of the stage while the bookshop takes up the major part. The letters are read by the sender with appropriate reactions from the recipient and this is the character on whom we focus.

Helene is the hub around which the action revolves, of course. But Janie Dee isn’t acting. She is Helene. Funny, feisty and smart, we recognise her at once and follow her initial probes into Frank’s (Clive Francis) rather stuffy formality with attention which becomes deeper and more empathetic as sthe play progresses.

But it’s not just Helene and Frank in this play, is it? The staff at number 84—the manager, Mr Martin (Ted Merwood), the office boy, Willliam (Samuel Townsend), Megan, Joan and Cecily (Lysette Anthony, Jemma Churchill and Alice Haig), who also read and respond to Helene’s generosity as well as her letters—all offer their friendship to the lonely Helene. Like us, they become her extended family. We love them all.

84, Charing Cross Road definitely not to be missed, then. And if, like me, you sometimes feel a bit despondent about the decline in reading, the depressing numbers of closed bookshops in your district and the latest news that library issues in the UK were down by 4 million last year, you might have been encouraged by the sight of members of the audience—some of them teenagers—enthusiastically queuing to buy a copy of 84 in the Playhouse foyer after the show.

Reviewer: Anne Hill