84 Charing Cross Road must be the unlikeliest best-seller and the unlikeliest stage hit ever (a less unlikely film hit as it starred Anthony Hopkins). Twenty-odd years’ worth of letters between an American bibliophile and a London bookseller, with no action, no changes of location, minimal plot development and no love interest, replete with references to literary figures whose names will mean little or nothing to 90% of us. None of the characters even meet in person.
Yet it works, thanks to the wit of the writing, the engaging characters and the warmth of the relationship that develops between them. Largely, indeed, due to the humour and charisma of Helene Hanff’s own character, which provokes such a delighted (and delightful) response from the “inmates” of the bookshop. Anyway, it works.
Halse have, as usual and to their lasting credit, selected a play which not only requires a small cast and set, but also places more than minimal demands both on their performers and on the comprehension of their audience. Andy Hill’s production is not flawless but is still extremely enjoyable and at times moving.
Helene herself is the lynchpin of the show and Jenny Hill gives an excellent performance, bringing out to the full Hanff’s independence, bibliomania, idiosyncasies and biting, often self-deprecatory, wit. Her massive line load is flawlessly delivered and her New York accent slips only very occasionally. Her numerous costume changes only involved the top layer (smart move) and were smoothly effected.
Matt Ogden, as Hanff’s main correspondent Frank Doel, is as competent as always but not quite at his best. At times his response to Helene’s letters could do with a little more animation, and his command of his lines was less than perfect. He grows more into the part as his character becomes more relaxed in the face of Helene’s compelling personality.
This year’s newcomers, Rebecca Webb and Rachael Fordham, give appealing performances as the junior bookstore staff, and Caroline Cook turns in a nice cameo as Helene’s friend Maxine. Derek Hillenbrand’s cameo is competently done, but his major contribution to the show is in building the ingenious and strikingly detailed set.
On a couple of minor points, the bookstore section of the set, while well-designed, is somewhat overlit (Maxine remarks “the shop is dim”, so it really ought to be); and a bit more colour in Helene’s own apartment, whatever the squalor of her neighbourhood, would seem more in character. But by and large this is another plus for Halse.