[rating: 20101220132309596 1 5 53]
84 Charing Cross Road
By James Roose-Evans, based on the book by Helene Hanff
Performed by Stagecraft, Wellington
Directed by Tabitha Arthur
Season: 10-20 February at the Gryphon Theatre, 22 Ghuznee Street, Wellington.
Reviewed by Tanya Piejus
From the moment you walk into the auditorium to see Stagecraft Theatre's production of 84 Charing Cross Road, you are drawn into the charming world of New Yorker Helene Hanff and her more-than-20-year relationship with the staff of a London bookshop. Helene (Rachel Burt) is already there, sprawled on the floor of her brownstone apartment on one side of the stage, while Frank Doel (John Chalmers) and his team quietly go about their business on the other. Once the lights go down, you discover that this is no ordinary more-than-20-year relationship and no ordinary play. The relationship is conducted purely by letter, as Helene orders her favourite literature from London and Frank and his minions send her second-hand books as they become available. The characters speak almost entirely to the audience, and never across the divide of the stage, as they narrate the story through the content of their missives.
This format, and the lack of any real plot in the play, makes this a potentially tedious watch. However, the production overcomes these difficulties in many delightful ways. The script is deliciously warm and funny. Helene's wit and sass is contrasted beautifully with the stiff-upper-lipped quaintness of the bookshop staff. This is the 1940s when rationing keeps the London folk in post-war drear. Helene's meagre script-reader's salary can still afford tasty parcels for the shop staff. This becomes a major highlight in their lives and in the script.
The elegantly chaotic set provides a subtly-coloured backdrop stuffed with hundreds of leather-bound books. Sam Perry's cunningly hinged shelves allow a slick transformation of the shop without slowing down the action. Well-placed music underscores the text, and gently moves the action forward in time towards the 1970s.
Tabitha Arthur's sensitive direction produces a series of lovely moments: the first parcel to the shop revealing a giant ham, the discovery of other staff secretly writing letters to "Frank's" Helene, and a wonderfully lame Christmas party at the shop. But the most sublime moment comes when Helene and Frank stand almost shoulder-to-shoulder in a spotlight, lovingly handling the same book of poetry on either side of an invisible ocean.
Rachel Burt handles Helene's energy, humour and brash American-ness with confidence, alternately sucking on a cigarette and a glass of gin, deftly delivering a good half of the script by herself and gaining most of the laughs. John Chalmers imbues the affable but straight-laced Frank with an effortless charm and shows superb comic timing in some of his lines. The remaining cast of staff and friends supports with quiet skill, never upstaging the leads. Ange Fitzharris deserves special mention for her excellent accent and easy stylishness as Helene's friend, Maxine. And Alan Carabott's unerring sense of character needs only one speech to have the audience saying, 'Aw!' at Bill's awkward sweetness.
The whole effect of this joyous production is entirely engaging. First-time director Tabitha Arthur deserves much praise for giving delicate light and shade to a superb piece of writing, and drawing strong performances from a well-chosen cast.