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Theatre Review: 84 Charing Cross Road @ Cambridge Arts Theatre

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This production of 84 Charing Cross Road is as witty and charming as the play itself.

Based on an autobiographical book by Helene Hanff, the play follows the written correspondence between Hanff, a New York resident, and Frank Doel, chief buyer of an antiquarian bookshop in London. Over the years, what began with Hanff merely ordering books by post develops into a close friendship.  

Leads Stefanie Powers and Clive Francis wonderfully portray the touching relationship between Hanff and Doel, as well as each individual character’s endearing quirks. The ‘translation gap’ between laid-back American Hanff and initially stuffy Brit Doel provides many laugh-out-loud moments, as do Hanff’s acerbically witty comments, delivered excellently by Powers.

The set is as good-looking as it is functional, with most of the stage taken up by the antiquarian bookshop, Marks & Co. Shelves and Shelves of beautiful old books stretch high above the stage, adding the perfect touch of antiquated atmosphere. The structure of it works well too: it is split to show Hanff on one side in New York, and Doel and others working at the bookshop in London on the other. The actors and lighting designer manage to seamlessly shift the audience’s attention between them.

Scenes are interspersed with music, singing and dancing from the actors, which adds a lively and light-hearted feel to the show. It also aids the audience in noting the passing of time, as we move from Christmas carols to cheery Spring choruses. The play’s pace is indulgently slow, allowing the relationship to develop in a leisurely way, in keeping with the basis of written correspondence. However, this does mean that energy can drop a little at times. There were also a few small line slip-ups, and the accent of a minor character, Maxine, seemed to oscillate wildly between American and Irish.

These were minor detractors, however, from an otherwise excellent show. With a beautiful set, lively musical intervals and a genuine sense of chemistry between the two lead actors, 84 Charing Cross Road is a thoroughly charming, entertaining evening out.  

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