The 39 Steps – Review – Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough
By Elizabeth Stanforth-Sharpe, July 2023
Albert Einstein is purported to have said, “Logic will take you from A to Z; Imagination will take you everywhere”, and rarely is this seen more than in Paul Robinson’s revival of The 39 Steps, co-produced by Stephen Joseph Theatre and Theatre by the Lake. If you thought the 2018 version was impressive, be prepared to like the cut of 2023’s jib even better.
The 39 Steps, published in 1915, was the first of John Buchan’s novels about Richard Hannay, the breathless man-on-the-run, innocently embroiled in an implausible tale of espionage. Though it was written just as World War One was gathering pace, offering insights into the political and social climate of that era, it is a timeless piece of writing that with minor tweaks can be made relevant to all, full of the kind of pace, mayhem and fun that endures. In the original there is no love interest – indeed only one female character, but lots of disguises and ludicrously implausible escapades as Hannay transverses the English and Scottish landscape. Hannay’s plea, “I was not a murderer, but I had become an unholy liar, a shameless imposter, and a highway man with a marked taste for expensive cars”, makes a gently humorous segue into the theatrical adaptation by Patrick Barlow.
The show opens with upper-crust Richard Hannay, bored and deciding to, “do something pointless, like going to the theatre”, an action from which the rest of the incredible narrative unfurls.
A quick perusal of the programme gives a clue as to what is to come. Taking the role of Richard Hannay is Dave Hearn, and Clown 1 is Niall Ransome, both members of the brilliant Mischief Theatre (The Play That Goes Wrong and Good Luck, Studio), and specialists in clowning as a vehicle for freedom of expression and imagination. Clown 2 is Lucy Keirl, already loved by SJT devotees as Mandy and Queen Delia from 2022’s Cinderella, now back to show that she is no slouch when it comes to the energy, spontaneity, improvisation, physical and unyielding concentration needed to sustain the high level of risk and play required of a performer in a piece that is lengthy and requires her to be concurrently engaged with the script, her fellow cast members, and the audience. Olivia Onyehara, playing Annabella Schmidt, Pamela and Margaret, is perhaps more known, both locally and nationally, as a classical actor, but proves her acumen for comedy is just as superb.
Hannay’s ’expensive car’ becomes the kind we all constructed as children, formed from dining room chairs and a fire-guard, and, whilst I’m not going to give any more spoilers, the transformation of a motley collection of household items into useful storytelling tools is the kind of creative genius that we all had at four years old, but somehow supressed as the years passed. When did we lose the art of playing?
Helen Coyston is the dazzlingly inventive inspiration behind the sets and costume, as she was in 2018.
Four actors play over a hundred different characters, where the individual’s responsiveness to others is key, but where each actor must remain in synchronisation with the rest of the ensemble; no mean feat. It calls for being able to accept generously even when things take an unexpected turn, patience, vulnerability, and emotional resilience, and the fact that this all works so well is that Hearn, Ransome, Keirl, and Onyehara are not only exceptional actors as individuals, but that they are so bound and disciplined as an ensemble. Erin Carter is the Movement Director, and a huge amount of credit also needs to go to her.
Barlow arrived at this version of The 39 Steps via a convoluted route. The novel had been adapted several times for film and stage; the love interest had already been added by others, and the complexity of the disguises had already leapt from the page to a three-dimensional freneticism that made the comedy more visual. In 1995, the unlikely combination of The North Country Theatre (based in Richmond, North Yorkshire), Producer Nobby Dimon, Writer Simon Corble, Designer Johnny Buck, an assorted collection of ladders, some abandoned planks, and the improvisational skills of four actors, took the production to a new dimension. York actor and labyrinth creator Thomas Frere was the first Richard Hannay, each performance was unique, and the show toured from the Georgian Theatre in Richmond to village halls right across the north. Somewhere along the way, it caught the eye of Barlow – of the comedy double act National Theatre of Brent – who managed to pull together a script that captured the chaos; ladders, planks, and all. The play hit the West End and then Broadway. In 2018, Robinson added to its theatrical provenance by staging it in the round for the first time, commissioning an original score by Scarborough’s own, world-renowned composer, Simon Slater, and casting one of the clowns as a woman (Laura Kirman, an associate artist with Mischief Theatre).
Which brings us up to date. Robinson is ‘settled’ at SJT, slowly losing his ‘incomer’ status, his directorial voice is not only more known to us, but much loved, the five interim years have marked the world in all kinds of ways and, thankfully, no one would even find it necessary to make the gender of any of the actors noteworthy. This year’s production of The 39 Steps is more confident, more assured, utterly brilliant in its execution, employs all the tenets of clowning theatre – presence, truth, and playfulness – and is just the kind of belly-laugh we all need. The British clowning teacher, John Wright, in his book Why Is That So Funny wrote, ‘We’re all clowns really, but we’ve spent most of our lives trying to hide this embarrassing reality under layers of intelligence, sensibility and social nicety’, and perhaps we all need to watch a show like The 39 Steps once in a while, to allow the social codes to be pared away in a vicarious, ‘safe’ way, allowing the play and its performers to do the work for us. The actors are our de-mechanisers, giving us permission to put aside rules, timetables, etiquette, proprieties and critical consciousness, for the length of the show, but also as long as the endorphin benefits last.
The evening that I watched, there was a large group of young people from a language school in the auditorium. Some had little English, but every one of them got caught up in the global language of laughter, and the universal language of play, taking part when called upon, and having freedom from any of the tension or awkwardness of not understanding the dialogue. There couldn’t have been a better production to take them to.
Richard Hannay’s opening line persuaded him to go the theatre. I would heartily recommend that everyone follows his example and goes to see The 39 Steps. I can guarantee that it won’t be a ‘pointless’ exercise. There will be a German woman with a gun, there will be a murder, there will be threats to national security, and there will be love. You may, or may not, grasp what the 39 steps actually are, but you’ll be laughing so much that it won’t matter in the least.
It is a hilariously sublime production, and Robinson, his talented Creatives and his astute cast of four – Dave Hearn, Lucy Keirl, Olivia Onyehara and Niall Ransome – deserve all the plaudits for showing how well we can do theatre in the north.
‘The 39 Steps’ is at Stephen Joseph Theatre Scarborough until July 29th, and at Theatre By The Lake from August 3rd to September 2nd
images: Tony Bartholomew