THE 39 STEPS
Hyde Little Theatre
From the novel by John Buchan and adapted by Patrick Barlow
Directed by Roger Boardman
This play is based on the novel of the same name by John Buchan, and in 1935 became a film directed by Alfred Hitchcock. This version of the classic spy adventure has very much been written with humorous intent, and boy did it have the audience chuckling.
The original concept and production of a four-actor version of the story was by Simon Corble and Nobby Dimon. Patrick Barlow rewrote this adaption in 2005.
Richard Hannay is just a normal guy living in London, who, after a night at the theatre, befriends Anabella, a female counter-espionage agent, whom he takes back to his flat and who is subsequently murdered. It is this scenario which catapults him into an adventure that requires him to prevent an organisation of spies called the 39 Steps from stealing British military secrets. Initially he is accused of the murder of Anabella. Hannay goes on the run to Scotland where he meets Pamela and sets about stopping the spy ring and clearing his name.
A cast of four, energetically perform all parts in this play. Richard Parker played the part of our hero, Richard Hannay. Alison Bowers was all three women who were his love interests. The plethora of other characters, villains, policemen, vaudeville entertainers and women were expertly played by two other actors, Ian Chatterton and Dominic Petherby. Those backstage helping these two with their hectic costume changes need recognition for their efforts, as I am sure it was no easy task to conduct the great number of changes at a speed that did not hinder the pace of the play.
I was initially disappointed with the set, which was very much a black box with stage blocks to give height and seating opportunities, but as the fast pace of this play and the plot got going I found that it became less noticeable as we, the audience, focused on the actors and the hilarious laugh-out-loud comedy of this piece. Some of the scene changes were very evident and conducted in full lighting by the stage crew. I wondered if these might have been done by the actors themselves. Maybe the director, Roger Boardman, thought about this and chose not to compromise the pace that had been set and so let the actors concentrate on doing their quick changes. Stage manager, Claire Brown, did a sterling job of rescuing a scene, when a door came off its hinges. There was good use of imagery in the set design, especially of the train, and the Forth Bridge which helped convey the idea of travel. The sections of escaping along the train added a touch of drama, and the use of a single window frame to climb through was comedy genius.
There must have been over a hundred sound cues during the play and Martin Webber was very much on the button and right on cue. The lighting plot was effective but would have been enhanced by another spotlight, especially when the two side stages as well as the main stage were being used.
Richard Parker was the glue that held the play together. He remained calm as the mayhem of the other three actors frantically changed costumes and characters. He navigated the plays plot with ease and kept it on an even keel. His portrayal of the innocent, upper-class toff was very engaging. He had a twinkle in his eye and good facial expressions. The stockings scene is one that comes to mind! In a play such as this, timing of actions and line delivery is very important for the humour to be appreciated, and Richard had this in spades.
Alison had three female characters to portray, from femme fatale Anabella to spiky love interest Pamela, with Scottish Margaret in-between, changed actions and maintained accents for each one, thus creating three very different women. Throughout, characters all had good expression that added to their personae.
The vast amount of silly comedy came from the two stooges, Ian and Dominic. Both were very expressive and changed their characters, and, at time,s sexes with ease. No two characters were alike and each had been carefully crafted from the dialogue they had. Both had great command of comic timing and knew instinctively when to stop, stay still and let the audience recover from laughing at their antics. Sometimes less is more and it takes skilled performers to do this. Their Scottish characters were reminiscent of those you may find in Royston Vasey. This duo’s comedy was pure gold.
I did say that all parts were played by four actors, and normally it is. However, on this occasion, the director, Roger Boardman, decided to make a Hitchcock appearance and came on stage as a couple of the characters. Maybe this was deliberate or maybe it was to let the two stooges have a respite from the plethora of changes they had.
It must have been very gratifying for all concerned, committee, back stage staff, director, and those on stage, to experience and hear not only the applause at the end of the play but also the well-earned cheers from the audience.
Thank you to everyone for your hospitality and especially for a most entertaining evening.