Review: 84 Charing Cross Road at Cambridge Arts Theatre a tour de force with immaculate comic timing

Stefanie Powers as Helene Hanff in 84 Charing Cross Road

Stefanie Powers as Helene Hanff in 84 Charing Cross Road - Credit: Archant

This is a sweet play about a poignant, true story. The performances are virtuoso from actors who are masters of their craft.

Stefanie Powers and Clive Francis are luminescent as New York writer, Helene Hanff and London bookseller Frank Doel who corresponded for 20 years sharing a love of antique books.

It was only after the correspondence was over because Mr Doel had died that the letters were collected as the book 84 Charing Cross Road, the address of the West End book shop, Marks & Co.

On stage throughout the show, Powers as Helene and Francis as Frank, each typify a middle class person living in post-war Britain and America. She is a struggling writer but aware of the harshness of rationing, sends food parcels to the shop at Christmas and Easter so the staff can have such luxuries as fresh eggs and tinned ham.

The shop staff write back to Helene expressing their gratitude but for years, Frank’s own letters are formal. After all, he says, they have to go into the file. It takes years for him to relax into first name terms.

Powers and Francis have immaculate comic timing and create unforgettable characters who each inhabit their own universe but reach out to each other while always keeping a respectful distance.

She isn’t afraid to tease when books are slow in arriving or to be brutally frank sometimes. One letter begins: “What sort of black Protestant Bible is this?” (Opening sentence written originally in capital letters). “Kindly inform the Church of England they have loused up the most beautiful prose ever written, whoever told them to tinker with the Vulgate Latin? They’ll burn for it, you mark my words.”

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This production keeps faithfully to the letters in the book. Refreshingly today when some productions don’t even bother with a set, this one by Norman Coates is detailed and charming and creates a world.

The dates read out at the top of the letters move the action through the years and the little scenes are punctuated by music played on stage by the cast who also play the other members of the shop staff.

There is excellent support from Samantha Sutherland as Cecily Farr, William Oxborrow, playing three roles, Loren O’Dair as both Megan Wells and Maxine Stuart, Ben Tolley as Bill Humphries and Alvin and Fiona Bruce as Joan Todd.

The touch is very light and the audience is chuckling throughout and we glimpsed at a lost time thanks to stagecraft that is a tour de force.