Haslingfield Little Theatre


Date of Review:    Thursday 15th May 2014
Reviewer:              Sue Hartwell NODA East District 7 Representative on behalf of Julie Petrucci, District 4(S) Representative

Haslingfield Little Theatre’s production of this dramatic piece was an absolute triumph for their Director, Bic Baker, in every respect.  The set, props, costumes and the professionalism of the actors provided the first-night capacity audience with a wonderfully realistic and riveting portrayal of this true story, based on the business correspondence between a struggling young American playwright, Helene Hanff, and the manager and staff at a London antiquarian bookshop over some 20 years, from 1949 to 1969 and covering some important events in America and England during that period.

Despite the confines of a small stage and not content to use painted backcloths for scenery, Bic Baker and his team of set designers, props, stage, lighting and sound crews, had lovingly re-created the interior of the bookshop at 84 Charing Cross Road, complete with shelves and alcoves filled with an eclectic mix of 100’s of beautifully bound books.  The recessed doorway to the shop, too, was correct in every detail, including appropriately reversed shop signage “Marks & Co. 84” above the door. The high-level ledger clerk’s desk and other appropriate period furniture completed the authentic and visually pleasing interior. In addition, at stage right, was a small raised platform, complete with modest bookshelves, easy chair, desk, with a pre-1946 working Royal typewriter, and other props representing the room in her small New York apartment where Helene worked on her scripts and wrote her correspondence. This split-set approach was inspired and worked extremely well, ensuring a seamless “ebb and flow” between the various scenes.  The actors obviously had to navigate their way around this very “crowded” set, but it didn’t seem to impede them at all and they appeared to be quite at ease with their surroundings, adding significantly to the quality of the performance. 

And what a performance they gave us.  The entire script consists of the correspondence, presented as monologues, and acted out by each of the characters as they bring the text of the letters to life.  This calls for the utmost level of confidence and is testament to many hours of solid rehearsal. Maria Skovmand as Helene Hanff was magnificent, her control and delivery awe inspiring, with a lovely sense of humour, mixed with the occasional outburst of frustration, where required.  Her growing affinity and friendship with the staff at the London bookshop came through warmly in her lovely American accent.  James Thomas as Frank Doel, the knowledgeable and mild-mannered manager of the bookshop, portrayed admirably the rather reserved Englishman, eager to please and fulfil Helene’s every book request and full of apologies when things went awry.  Although perhaps a little less confident in his role, his occasional trip over his words and nervous cough nevertheless did not detract from his performance and rather enhanced his characterisation.  Delightful supporting performances, too, from Judith Brammer and Hilary Stokes as Cecily Farr and Megan Wells, employees at the bookshop, who begin their own correspondence with their American customer, firstly as personal “thank you”s for Helene’s generous Christmas and Easter food-parcels and gifts sent to the staff during post-war rationed England and later, adding personal details about their lives and encouraging Helene in her plans to visit England and make their acquaintance.  In their mainly non-speaking roles, Robin Perry as bookshop partner Mr. Martin, Philip Chapman as shop assistant Bill Humphries and Samuel Clarke as young despatch clerk Thomas, all complimented the other characters, each adding natural little touches to the action.

Another solid performance, too, from Amanda Hourmand, in her cameo role as Helene’s American actress friend, who, during one of her visits to London, calls in at the bookshop and is able to give Helene an accurate description of the premises, though, sadly is unable to meet with any of the staff, who, apparently, are all out at lunch! 

The very poignant end to the play comes when Frank Doel dies following a ruptured appendix and the future of the bookshop is uncertain.  This sad news is conveyed in a last letter to Helene from Joan Todd, one of the newer members of staff, sympathetically portrayed here by Cheryl Lowery. The final, very emotive, scene is of Helene now standing in the empty, closed shop, after the successful launch of her book “84 Charing Cross Road”, which has brought her to London at last, but too late!

Thank you to everyone at Haslingfield Little Theatre for a truly inspirational evening’s entertainment.