I’m not keen on totemic American screen actors indulging themselves on the London stage, but for Stefanie Powers, Robert Wagner’s glamorous co-star in Hart to Hart, made a willing exception.

The ‘special relationship’ between the UK and US may be under strain at the moment but never was it stronger than in 84 Charing Cross Road, a warm-hearted rationing-era story of gnarly chainsmoking American writer Helene Hanff and the London bookshop with which she kept up a highly personal correspondence for twenty years.

Powers looks strikingly youthful and agile, but James Roose-Evans’ 1981 script and Richard Beecham‘s static direction are as dusty as the shelves of the antiquarian book store itself, and the story simply doesn’t come off the page.  Powers is trapped in just a few square feet of set, emerging to squawk on cue like a parrot whose cloth has been suddenly whipped off its cage.

Although Hanff is occasionally dry and acerbic, she’s no Dorothy Parker and the play doesn’t let her commentate enough on politics and events to make it memorable – in life she was first woman president of the Lenox Hill Democratic Club, but you get no taint of that.

The original two-hander has been fleshed out with the staff of the shop who for some bizarre reason are obliged to play musical instruments and sing to announce the changing seasons and years. It’s a feature of Hanff’s correspondence that little is known about the staff, so the actors have nothing to work with apart from mousy stereotypes who don’t seem to age or change in the 20 years’ passage of time.

Powers doesn’t capture Hanff’s gravelly voice – in fact it looks like she’s playing Anne Bancroft playing Hanff in the movie, rather than getting close to the character herself, and as the shop manager Frank Doel, Clive Swift seems unsure of his lines whenever he strays from his desk – surely he’s not reading them?

Hart to Hart is getting a reboot with the married sleuths replaced by a wealthy gay couple.  84 Charing Cross Road needs a reboot too.

For anyone who knows the book, this could be a sweet saunter down memory lane.  For anyone else, it’s just a sad episode of ‘Where Are They Now?‘.


until June 16 and touring