Review: Frankly: deserved full houses

A PLAY about the twenty-year correspondence between an American book lover and a chief buyer in England does not immediately sound like highly promising material for an evening out.

Wednesday, 20th April 2011, 11:15 am

Especially when the tap-tapping of typewriters is as close as you get to action in about two hours.

But there was life and soul a-plenty in Helene Hanff’s heart-warming 84 Charing Cross Road in the intimate surroundings of Burgess Hill Theatre Club’s tiny theatre.

That this play beat with a strong heart throughout was down to superb performances from everyone involved, on and off stage.

Splitting the set between a cold modern apartment in Big Apple and a grey olde-worlde London bookshop shrunk the Atlantic to a pond and helped evoke the emotion and gentle humour of the play.

Huge pressure is on the two lead characters to sharply focus on the remarkable relationship nurtured by a shoal of letters across the sea between sparky script writer Hanff and plodding but book-savvy Frank Doel, chief buyer of Marks & Co.

As a native Canadian Carolyn Chinn had a head start on a New York accent in her beautiful portrayal of Hanff, although of course the accents are not the same.

Chinn had a few entirely forgivable lapses in the demanding dialogue, but what the audience will remember instead is her captivating performance as a woman capable of teasingly acerbic reminders about late books usually tempered with human touches, such as: “made arrangements with Easter Bunny to bring you an egg.”

Cherishing the meaning of words and finding the touch of well-covered books sensuous, Hanff was nailed perfectly as a woman as fussy about what was left out of a book as she was passionate about what was in it.

In his much milder and subtle role John O’Connor was masterful as the balding, bespectacled and ultra-respectable Frank. O’Connor’s fine performance captured a rare relationship with a woman Doel obviously hugely admired, perhaps might have even have fallen in love with in his low-key way, but was tragically destined never to meet. By the time a couple of decades of astonishing social change had drifted by and debut-making Wendy Ironmonger as Joan Todd had broken news of ailing Frank’s death we were wondering what might have been smouldering secretly in his heart under that smart office suit.

The support cast of Samantha Payne, Nicki Plank, Greg Sherman, Cherry Woodhouse and, more briefly, Chris Smith, did a superb job in keeping the atmosphere alive and preventing the play from becoming a mere dialogue.

When Hanff finally arrives at the closed shop long after Frank dies she reflects ruefully: “How about this Frankie? I finally made it”.

It is a great shame a few more people didn’t make it to the play, which drew disappointing audiences.

In my book such quality deserves full houses,

Phil Dennett