‘84 Charing Cross Road’ by Helene Hanff – opening night review by Martin Paul Roche

Tracey Rontree plays Helene Hanff and Simon Wood plays Frank Doel.

If I was to tell you that the current play from Saddleworth Players is about two people writing letters to each other, you might be inclined to be a tad uninspired at the prospect – but think again.

Definitely think again.

84 Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff is so much more and it has taken the skill of Melvyn Bates as Director and his talented cast to bring this novel-turned-play-turned-film to life … and more besides.

The play begins in 1949 and then captures 20 years of correspondence between struggling New York playwright Helene Hanff (played by Tracey Rontree) and London antiquarian shop owner Frank Doel (Simon Wood). Her love and pursuit of books and desire to construct a collection which satisfies her appetite for all things literary, causes her to pursue a transatlantic association with her favourite bookstore. And the play explores how kindred spirits can be the basis for the most enduring of relationships; across the miles, their business relationship becomes far more complex, intricate and fascinating to observe unfolding. Mutual respect for their shared passions provides us with a window on two different worlds and lives which unfold before us in intimate and innocent detail. It is a charming piece which the company do justice to and more besides.

Melvyn Bates’ attention to minutia and understanding of the work ensures that the piece has good pace, entertains and constantly engages.

As ever, Saddleworth and their attention to physical details is faultless, from the set to the wardrobe, from the super staging to the mind-boggling volume of props’ – and not forgetting that fascinating play list of tracks which is interpolated throughout and contextualises the era we travel through. This is a piece which depends on detail and the company are clearly equal to the challenges it creates.

Tracey Rontree is the binding for this theatrical memoir, and she is faultless in her delivery. She adds interest and colour to all that she does and paints mental imagery for us to share in as she verbalises her letters to America: personal, intimate, heart-warming, she is the Queen of Detail who commands the role and the moment.

The supporting cast of Verity Mann, Laura Rothwell, Keith Begley, Colin Watt, Patricia Redshaw and Chloe Whatmough are used intelligently within the unfolding narrative and deftly provide much needed character, variety and interest to what could have been a very dry piece of theatre in the wrong hands, with the wrong cast.

But the last word must be for Simon Wood in the role of Frank Doel. Due to changes in cast beyond their control, he stepped in with three weeks to go and pulled this difficult and demanding role off from scratch. He commands (and demands) my utmost respect for all that he has achieved. A sensitive and considered performance under challenging circumstances, it was a big ask and he rose to the challenge.

Another memorable and quality production from Saddleworth Players, it plays until the 30th November and is well-worth the ticket.

Martin Paul Roche


23 November 2019

Tickets available from the Millgate website (millgateartscentre.co.uk) or by telephoning the Box Office on 01457 874644, Tuesdays 2pm–5pm, Wednesdays and Thursdays 2pm–7pm, and Fridays and Saturdays from 9:30am–1pm.

Photographs courtesy of Stuart Coleman: www.ttfphotography.co.uk

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