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84 Charing Cross Road

Helene Hanff, adapted by James Roose-Evans
Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, and touring
(2004)

When an author comes up with an idea for a play, he or she may often be disappointed with the finished product. But James Roose-Evans rarely has that problem - he watches his productions all the way through from page to stage.

He had the foresight to realise that Helene Hanff's books of letters to the antiquarian bookshop Marks and Co on Charing Cross Road would make an ideal play. He was right - and spectacularly so. He directed it in the West End and on Broadway; it won awards on both sides of the Atlantic for best director and best play.

The stars of that production twenty years ago were Rosemary Leach and David Swift. It gained ecstatic reviews. Now Roose-Evans is directing the play again, a Churchill Theatre, Bromley production which has just started a four-month tour of the UK. This time Rula Lenska and William Gaunt play the two main characters. The director must be just as delighted with the result.

Helene Hanff is the unreserved New York writer who orders books from an unfashionable London shop. She becomes increasingly more brash as she gets closer to Frank Doel who deals with her correspondence.

It's not only a tender, moving story of a couple who are drawn together through their love of literature even thought they never get to meet. It's also a social chronicle of post-war to post-Beatles Britain as the play spans 22 years in the lives of Hanff and Doel.

Simon Higlett's set is atmospherically realistic: you can almost smell the fustiness of some of the antiquarian tomes in the bookshop while Miss Hanff's untidy apartment whose shelves are also full of well-thumbed books is raised above normal stage level.

The first sound you hear is Helene bashing away at her typewriter, a sadly missed noise in the modern computer age.

Lenska is excellently cast as Helene Hanff, maintaining a New York accent throughout and bringing out every facet of her character. You rejoice with her when she's invited to write for a television series which massively increases her salary; you pity her when she's unable to finance a trip to London to see the Queen's coronation; and you feel exasperated with her when she continually finds excuses not to get on a BOAC plane to come across the Atlantic.

William Gaunt is just as impressive as Frank, initially very staid and proper, and a total contrast to the brazen American. Gradually he loosens his stiff upper lip. You warm to him through his witty communication with Helene and his kindly disposition to everyone around him. Towards the end of the play he looks distinctly older, walking with a stoop and taking longer to do the most mundane task.

The other seven actors make the most of their parts, usually as hard-working bookshop staff. But the play is largely about Helene and Frank; and it is the success it is largely due to Lenska and Gaunt.

Miss Lenska doesn't appear to age as much over the twenty years, mainly because she is usually sitting behind her desk composing her next letter. But that is a trivial criticism of a delightful and thoroughly enjoyable production.

"84 Charing Cross Road" tours to Peterborough, Mold, Windsor, Northampton, Colchester, Cambridge, Guildford, London (Richmond Theatre), Eastbourne, Cheltenham, Canterbury, Poole, Cardiff and Oxford until June 19th

Reviewer: Steve Orme