Tag Archives: Norman Coates

84 Charing Cross Road

reviewed at the Cambridge Arts Theatre on 26 June

1949 can seem like an alien time in 2015, a dingy lapse between wartime heroics and the Swinging Sixties. Yet that’s when the correspondence between New York-based struggling writer Helene Hanff and London bookshop Marks & Co began.

Hanff’s book detailing her correspondence, first with manager Frank Doel and later with other staff members which lasted until the shop closed 20 years later was published in 1970. There have been several stage, radio and film adaptations; this Cambridge Arts Theatre production uses the James Roose-Evans text and is directed by Richard Beecham.

There is also music composed and arranged by Rebecca Applin. That may pull you up short, if you come to the theatre expecting a straight-forward staging. Norman Coates’ set is conventional enough – floor to ceiling books on dark shelves with a large wireless in the foreground and Hanff’s cluttered office cum living-room to one side.

Music makes itself heard before a word is spoken. For the Londoners, this is traditional and comes from two violins, a cello, an accordion and a flute. Hanff is heralded by a jazzy saxophone. The passing of the seasons is indicated by carols and folk songs; the quasi-sombre ending is marked by the hymn “Abide with me”.

In between these interludes, the story flows as postal friendships develop and the characters find themselves caught up with each other’s lives, from Hanff’s fledgling television scripts (thanks to John Donne) through the austerities and food rationing of postwar Britain which prompt gift parcels in one direction and reciprocal gifts in return.

Leading the cast is Clive Francis as Doel, beautifully poised between business rectitude and an underlying sense of generosity Stefanie Powers is every inch the savvy, slightly abrasive New Yorker, a nice contrast with Samantha Sutherland’s gentle Cecily Farr, Doel’s assistant, who first begins to broaden the transatlantic correspondence.

Loren O’Dair contributes a well-contrasted pair of cameos as the mousey Megan Wells and US leading lady Maxine Stuart. Ultimately, the story keeps our attention through the two leading performances, and in this we are not let down. Chris Warren’s sound and Chris Davey’s lighting designs are subtle, indeed clever, but I’m not convinced that this is the definitive way to stage this script.

Four star rating.

84 Charing Cross Road runs at the Cambridge Arts Theatre until 30 June with matinées on 28 and 30 June as part of a national tour.

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84 Charing Cross Road

(reviewed at the Arts Theatre, Cambridge on 5 September)

The antiquarian bookshop which provides the title for James Roose-Evans’ production of his own stage adptation is no more. The two-decade epistolary exchanges between New York client Helene Hanff and shopmanager Frank Doel also belongs to a vanished age, perhaps being more akin to those fictional letter eschanges which so many novels of the 18th and early 19th century used as their format.

It’s a gentle, mannerly adaptation, given a matching production with an excellent flexible set by Norman Coates, most of which (very properly) being the bookshop with its mountains of shelves; Hanff’s cramped bed-sitters take up only a fraction of the space. The outstanding performance, beautifully nuanced and thoroughly three-dimensional, is that of Clive Francis as Doel.

Stefanie Powers’ Hanff gives us the outline of the outsider scrambling a living as script-reader and -writer but somehow the necessary acerbic rasp is missing. Throughout, for me, her performance is too quietly spoken. We laugh at the succession of financial disasters (dentistry and apartment demolition among them) which impede Haff’s chance of visiting London, but somehow it’s at the suggestion of these, not a sense of their reality.

There are strong performances by the other cast members, notably by Rosie Jones as Cecily, who starts her own correspondence with Hanff, and Irene Rambota as Hanff’s actress friend Maxine, who visits the shop while in a play transferred from Brodway to London (with muted box-office success). Hayward B Morse plays Mr Martin, one of those shop fixtures only really appreciated when lost.

This production was premiered at the Salisbury Playhouse last year and marks a move towards reviving in-house produced drama for the Cambridge Arts Theatre. Lee Dean is the co-producer.

84 Charing Cross Road runs at the Arts Theatre, Cambridge until 17 September. There are matinées on 8, 10, 15 and 17 September.

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Don’t Look Now

(reviewed at the Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch on 26 October)

What sends shivers down the spine where tales of the supernatural are concerned is often less the visualised than the imagined. We all cast our demons from different moulds. Nell Leyshon’s stage adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s short story Don’t Look Now is given a production by Simon Jessop which knows when to make evil concrete – as little as possible.

It is the Venetian setting designed by Norman Coates with the visual effects projected onto its bridges, water and shuttered windows by Dan Crews and the trickling soundscape devised by Andy Smart which create the atmosphere. We begin by an open grave before which grief-striken mother Laura (Charlotte Powell) stands motionless. Hymns and part of the Requiem Mass are heard while we watch the image of Laura and John’s young daughter Christine drown.

John (Tom Cornish) whisks Laura away to Venice, where they spent their honeymoon. He’s prepared to move on – after all their son John is alive, well and safe at his boarding school. As one cannot help but empaphise with Laura, to whom Powell gives sincerity in her grief and inevitable feelings of guilt (“why didn’t I…?), Cornish balances this by showing John less as unfeeling but more as something of a pragmatist.

The hotel bedroom scene where his desire to make love with his wife at first meets resistance that (perhaps) melts into acceptance, is cleverly played on two levels with the live actors and their projected images. The mutual ground which constitutes terra firma for this husband and wife is quietly crumbling. Their encounters with two strange, identically dressed elderly women (Gillian Cally as the sister with explanations, Tina Gray as her blind mystic sibling) display brutally the gulf opening for Laura and John.

You probably know what happens next. Onlookers and participants in their own parallel civic drama are the police chief (Stuart Organ) hunting a serial killer, the hotel clerk (Callum Hughes) and the restaurant proprietor (Sam Pay). A mysterious beak-masked sacristan – a commedia dell’arte character or a plague doctor? – and a diminutive red-cloaked figure (Karen Anderson) haunt this winter Venice.

Don’t Look Now runs at the Quen’s Theatre, Hornchurch until14 November.

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Plays

Boeing! Boeing!
(reviewed at the Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch on 9 March)

Comedy is as old as drama itself and the variation we call farce is probably its original manifestation. Farce in the UK is a well-established, well-loved genre which has developed in a peculiarly British way from Charley’s Aunt in the 1890s through the Aldwych (1930s) and the Whitehall seasons in the 1950s and 60s to Ayckbourn and Frayn in our own time.

Then there’s French farce, its sister – but not an identical twin. Many of the elements are identical – a multitude of doors revealing or concealing people (usually girls in a distinct state of undress) while at least one hapless man tries ever more frantically to control events of which he never really was the master in the first place.

Both the British and French versions rely on the actors’ split-second timing and sense of ensemble. It helps if at least the protagonist has a clown’s miming ability. Which brings me to Matt Devitt’s production of Marc Camoletti’s Boeing! Boeing! at the Queen’s Theatre in Hornchurch.

The plot concerns a Parisian man-about-town in the early 1960s who is basking in the fly-by attentions of three air hostesses (remember that this was a time when to be an air stewardess was as high a profile job as that of model or television presenter is today). Each thinks she’s his only “fiancée” (the Beverley Cross translation is of its era), thanks to Bernard’s canny manipulation of timetables.

Enter Robert, an old school friend up from the country on business who – not unnaturally – is riveted by this boulevardier lifestyle. Fred Broom plays increasingly harassed Bernard and Tom Cornish is Robert, puppy-dog eager to be involved and whose well-meaning attempts to help only – of course – make matters worse.

Then there’s Bertha (Megan Leigh Mason), Bernard’s maid, who becomes increasingly frustrated as timetables go awry. Bridging the gap between what would have been the first two acts, she earned her round of applause. The three contrasted air hostesses are go-getting Gloria (Ellie Rose Boswell) from TWA, Lufthansa’s valkyrie Gretchen (Joanna Hickman) and spirited Gabriella of Air Italia (Sarah Mahony).

Norman Coates’ set is another excellent one with clever projections and animations before the performance to remind us of time and place. His costumes are also spot-on. What rather lets it all flag, for all the cast’s hard work, is that the production lacks both the slick lightness of classic French farce and the knowingness of the home-grown British variety.

I’ve seen other productions of Boeing! Boeing! in the last couple of years where, for me, this hasn’t been an issue. This time it was one.

Boeing! Boeing! runs at the Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch until 28 March.

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