JAMES Roose-Evans’ international hit play 84 Charing Cross Road started its life at Salisbury Playhouse in 1981, before a triumphant transfer to the West End (and then to Broadway) and an award-winning film.
Now it’s back on stage in Salisbury, again directed by Roose-Evans– and it’s a sheer delight.
I must be one of the very few in the packed audience who had neither read nor seen any of the earlier manifestations … there were those at the Playhouse who hailed it as their favourite book, of which they kept multiple copies in case of loan or loss.
American Helene Hanff was not well known, one of those backroom writers who provided scripts for television series, but whose own plays won praise without production.
She was fascinated by various aspects of English Literature, and when she found books in the US were expensive and badly produced, she began writing to the London antiquarian bookshop Marks and Co at 84 Charing Cross Road.
From these stilted early transactions developed a warm and colourful friendship that lasted 20 years. The chief buyer “Young Mr Frank” Doel, found obscure volumes, and she reciprocated with food parcels for the rationed English staff. She kept making plans to visit, but was foiled by finances.
All the while the Marks and Co staff lived through the momentous changes of 1950s and 60s. The play even has a loud Beatles track heard from outside the door (though it’s doubtful that the famous Apple rooftop concert could be heard from Savile Row to the bookshop!)
Hanff’s wit and whimsy comes through in Janie Dee’s charming Anglophile New Yorker, and Clive Francis is gleefully understated … a man we still all recognise, but for how much longer.
Not only is this play wonderfully entertaining, but it is also thought provoking, especially in these days of Kindle and predictive text.
Let’s not throw our heritage out with the last “edition” of an electronic tablet.
Go to see 84 Charing Cross Road at Salisbury instead, IF you can get a ticket. It’s on until 28th February.
Photographs by Helen Maybanks