84 Charing Cross Road/Malvern Theatres

A TIME before social media, tweets, emails, apps, Instagram… who could possibly imagine such a world, a spinning planet where people actually spoke to each other, wrote letters and even read books.

Yes, what a nightmare prospect that would be these days for anyone under the age of 40.

Yet, once upon a time, everyone communicated by pressing a pen or pencil to a sheet of paper, placing the end result in something called an envelope, attaching a postage stamp and sending it on its way.

This gently paced and absorbing play is the story of struggling American writer Helene Hanff and her years of corresponding with London bookseller Frank Doel.

For more than two decades, she ordered antiquarian books from the ever-obliging Doel, who meticulously parcelled them up for their journey across the Atlantic.

Success came late in life for Hanff, ironically because of the very fact she wrote so many letters, literally a story bursting forth from many stories.

And Stefanie Powers more than does this persistent woman justice, turning in an epic performance as a writer who doggedly keeps the faith in her own talents and abilities, all of which will ultimately lead to success.

Infatuated with the writings of English poets and mystics John Donne and William Blake, she bombards Doel (Clive Francis) with so many missives that the humble bookseller invites her to Britain in the platonic hope that two kindred spirits might bathe together in the warm glow of Britain’s greatest wordsmiths.

Director Richard Beecham creates a wonderful period feel to a story that starts in the last days of wartime rationing and ends with the age of the Beatles.

Interestingly, we are also reminded of how labour intensive the world of work was back then. Who would have thought in this zero hours age that even a London bookshop might once have employed up to six persons?

Helene Hanff’s story is a life-affirming fable of a time when people made time for each other rather than endlessly gazing at an oblong of plastic.

The play runs until Saturday (June 9).

John Phillpott