THE 39 STEPS
Droylsden Little Theatre
Directed by Richard Parker
Based on a spy thriller novel by John Buchan, and a famous 1935 Hitchcock adaptation, ‘The 39 Steps’ by Simon Corble and Nobby Dimon and Patrick Barlow was first performed in 2005 as an out-and-out farce. Telling the story of upper-cut Englishman Richard Hannay’s bizarre, unfortunate and unexpected involvement with a Nazi-sympathising organisation, ‘The 39 Steps’ in its current incarnation is a far-cry away from the black-and-white, Hitchcock film.
This play has been something of a self-confessed obsession for director, Richard Parker. Having seen the play professionally six years ago, Richard has since gone on to play the lead character and now felt the time was right to direct it. Having such a close association and passion for the play enabled Richard to extract the absolute best from the script, with some lovely nuances to both comedy in characterisation; excellent visual vignettes and additional little touches which come from only knowing a piece intimately. (A nice addition was the BBC microphone scenes).
Richard was also blessed with a cast of four exceptionally strong players. Whilst I tried, and failed, to count the oft-estimated ‘100-150 characters’ heralded as being in the script, this production was a tour-de-force of characterisation with clear and distinctly different characters -which a farce of identity such as this requires.
This cast of four was led by Ian Chatterton as Richard Hannay, with Georgia Richardson playing all three of Hannay’s love interests. Tristan Hall and Steve Mallinson had the unenviable role of taking all the other characters: ranging from policemen to Music Hall performers, aeroplane pilots, BBC announcers and even charladies!
This play requires pace and snappy, quick scenes -which Richard achieved from his actors. Scenes ran very smoothly, dialogue was executed snappily and all the cast were secure not only in their dialogue but also their range of characterisations. This is absolutely no mean feat when faced with many quick changes and character changes and the cast were clearly well drilled and precise with what they were doing.
However, the production was sadly let the by some very protracted scene-changes which cut the pace and excitement built up from the previous scenes. A very visible arm ‘scooping’ the slow curtain in and out during these changes also distracted. Whilst music did cover some of the changes, I did find myself slipping into my programme on occasion whilst waiting for something to happen on stage. Whilst the cast handled the shifting of props and scenery (a club chair on wheels and some very clever steamer trunks in Act I, it was a little disappointing therefore, to have stage crew create the bedroom scene in Act II when the four had handled everything so well the previous act.
I am sure that the speed of the quick changes and the frantic running around backstage necessitated these changes, but they were distracting nonetheless. I realise that there are space limitations backstage at the theatre, but in the bringing on and off of the lamppost (very amusing) the stage crew member Ken Redfern was very clearly seen on numerous occasions. Ian’s reaction to the moving of the fireplace in Act 2, however, was a touch of genius and the door on wheels was comedy gold.
Sound and lighting were both excellent, with over 100 sound cues perfectly executed by Angela Kemp to create atmosphere and punctuate the hilarity of the play. I was even singing along to Al Bowlly at the end of the play - a lovely choice of music. Everything was spot on and well timed, including the amusing ‘fall into the water’ in Act 1 and the toilet flush in Act 2.
Some very effective lighting techniques and hazing gave us the impression of locations from the Forth Bridge to the Scottish Highlands, a on a speeding train and then onstage at the London Palladium. (No glorious red tabs, sadly!) The actors were always well lit by Ben Fox and all knew how and when to hit their mark in the lights. The party scene was effective and timed perfectly to the music and action of the opening door.
Props were all varied and detailed and well managed by Marion Hurst and Ken Redfern. All were in keeping with the action and the time of the play – particular attention to detail of the authentic 1930s London Palladium programmes was excellent and noticed, and the hilarious sandwiches in Act 2 were a brilliant idea and drew great laughter: well done. My personal favourite was the roller-blind in Act 1: very well timed and funnier each time it happened.
Costumes were excellent and in period and added to the characterisation: the garter-socks for the men were simply hilarious. I did feel, however, that with so much great attention to detail better-quality wigs were needed for Georgia (or even some talcum powder) to take away from their plasticky-sheen.
Having seen this production done elsewhere several times, the ‘aeroplane’ scene is always one which interests me as to how directors tackle it. Richard’s clever smoky and dark stage, with the two Clowns using torches to simulate plane wings, was very clever: and much better than cardboard cut-out planes and models hung on wire as I have seen before.
Ian Chatterton played Richard Hannay as a comedy hero. His subtle asides to the audience worked perfectly for him and he remained relatively calm during the chaos around him. His scenes stuck on the chair and climbing over the five-barred-gate were hilarious and his facial expressions conveyed Hannay’s sense of bewilderment and frustration equally. A very strong character performance from Ian, whose impeccable timing paid off greatly against the other actors. Ian’s depiction of Hannay was superlative and many actors would have benefitted from watching his performance.
Georgia Mallinson handled all three women very markedly and very differently. Her great ability at accents, and a distinctly different style for each character, really had the audience thinking that it was a different person each time! From femme-fatale Anabella, to the coquettish Irish Margaret, and finally to the headstrong Pamela, Georgia’s character portrayals were absolutely spot-on as she acted both as a great foil, and antagonist, for Hannay. (How she kept her legs straight for so long playing ‘dead’ I do not know.) Great work, Georgia!
Steve and Tristan provided the majority of the laugh-out-loud farce of this play, taking on a range of well-developed characters in, frankly, bizarre situations. A variety of accents were strong from both actors, and costumes and hats made the audience acutely aware of their different roles.
Steve’s facial expressions were priceless, with his Scottish highlander, and politician, being two personal favourites. He rightfully upstaged Hannay as the latter, with a hilarious tremble of the mouth and shuffle, but when falling asleep mid-speech really was the icing! Tristan’s Scottish characters were pure gold, and his turn as Mister Memory was both heart-rendering and ridiculous in equal measure. His turn as the Professor’s wife was simply wacky and had the audience in hysterical uproar. A sterling job, gentlemen, and well done to Steve for taking Tristan under your wing.
I was very pleased that this production stuck to the four actors, as scripted, and did not add a fifth unnecessary cameo.
Aside from the four actors, this really was a team effort in which everyone involved should be very proud of. I know that the production had some difficulties during rehearsals, but these are hardly worth mentioning as the end-product was so fantastic. The audience reaction on the night I saw the show was excellent and seemingly had been during the week.
Well done to all involved for producing a brilliant production - which was markedly different from a very recent production which Richard and Ian were both in. Richard, congratulations, all the hard work has certainly paid off and you certainly left the audiences laughing in the aisles and wanting to see more. Well done.
It’s always nice to review a society’s first show after joining ACT, and I thank you for a most lovely welcome and exceptionally warm hospitality. I greatly look forward to my next visit to Droyslden Little Theatre.