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
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
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)