In our fast-paced world of e-mails, satellite phones and instant messaging, it's hard to believe there was once a time when the only way to communicate across the Atlantic was via good old-fashioned snail mail. And it's the power of the written word, in both printed and missive form, that illuminates this tender tale of a rare, real-life friendship.
Based on the 20-year correspondence between New York playwright Helene Hanff and the staff of London booksellers Marks & Co., James Roose-Evans' play recalls a bygone, halcyon age where the ‘special relationship’ between the US and Britain really was something special. For Hanff, London symbolised a land of culture, history and great literature. To her correspondents, eking a living on meagre post-war rations, she represented a world of glamour, excitement and bulging food parcels.
At the heart of the book, and Roose-Evans' adaptation, lies the unspoken, unrequited romance between Hanff and Frank Doel, the mild-mannered book expert who spent two decades satisfying her craving for vintage editions and gilt-edged velour. "You're the only one who understands me!" writes Helene with barely concealed longing. But the pair were doomed never to meet, Hanff's perennial poverty forever postponing her oft-promised trip across the pond.
Though hardly a match for Anthony Hopkins and Anne Bancroft, stars of the 1987 film, Rula Lenska and William Gaunt do convey some of the pathos of this singular relationship. Dressed down in gingham shirts, drab pants and woolly cardigans, Lenska captures the brassy bullishness of Hanff but struggles to reveal her more sensitive side. Hers is very much the flashier role, so it's odd that Gaunt's quiet dignity makes the stronger impression.
Roose-Evans directed the original stage production and is therefore well-versed in creating a dynamic interplay between characters who never actually converse. That said, his attempts to provoke an emotional response are surprisingly clumsy, with the use of Samuel Barber's 'Adagio for Strings' in the closing scene feeling particularly heavy-handed.
Simon Higlett's two-tier set deftly contrasts Hanff's bohemian brownstone with the fusty gentility of Marks & Co. (now a Pizza Hut, in case you were wondering), while a game supporting cast battle (wo)manfully to assert their personalities on what is essentially a two-hander. Like an old book that's spent a year behind the sofa, it's a pleasure to make this play's acquaintance again - even if recent events have made its rose-tinted vision of Anglo-American empathy rather hard to swallow.
- Neil Smith (reviewed at the Churchill Theatre, Bromley)