84 Charing Cross Road makes you want to rush out and start an immediate correspondence with a complete stranger. It’s a play that takes us back to a time when the writer didn’t dash off a couple of lines thoughtlessly in an email, with the only touch of character an emoticon throw in at the end, but took the time to craft something rather deeper.
James Roose-Evans’s adaption of Helene Hanff’s lifetime of correspondence with bookseller Frank Doel is in love with words. They tumble out in a cascade, both from Hanff’s staccato New York brogue and the more considered clipped English reserve of Doel.
It’s a play that breaks many of the rules of the well made play that it superficially resembles. There is no direct interaction between the two protagonists, no real narrative, a lot of the dialogue comprises bibliophile enthusiasm that would require a first from Cambridge to keep up with. Yet bit by bit, letter by letter, a deep friendship forms between television hack Hanff and Doel over the Atlantic ocean. The tension builds as to whether Hanff will ever be able to make it to London to meet with the doting staff of Charing Cross Road. Its denouement has the ring of reality; it may not be as satisfactory as the conventional Hollywood ending, but is much more nourishing because of this.
Janie Dee catches the wit and the dash of acerbity in the writer, always a commission away from her dream trip. Her speed of thought is sometimes too swift for her speed of mouth, occasionally a line is stumbled or swallowed, but Dee is such a winning presence, warm yet with just enough edge that we’ll forgive her anything. Clive Francis thaws from his prototype Mr Banks, all stiff upper lip, to a man at ease skipping in anticipation of a visit from his transatlantic pen pal. They’re a lovely double act even as they’re separated by continents.
There is strong support from the other book shop workers; Alice Haig as the bookkeeper who can’t help drop her own bubbly notes in with the official correspondence, Lysette Anthony who doubles as a glamorous actress and shy book shop worker and Samuel Townsend who rather quirkily plucks away on a ukulele at various points.
It’s all staged rather briskly in Roose-Evans’ revival of his original production in a handsome book bound set by Norman Coates. 35 years ago this play took the theatre world by storm, transferring to the West End and then Broadway. This is unlikely to follow the same trajectory but over its two hours it gives us a rather lovely reminder of a time long past, when correspondence was as lovingly crafted as the best made play.
84 Charing Cross Road runs at Salisbury Playhouse until 28 February