The 39 Steps – Review – Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough

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By Eve Luddington, June 2018

I’m a big fan of theatre-in-the-round at its best. Sometimes, it’s disappointing but rarely at the Stephen Joseph Theatre (SJT) in Scarborough. Wherever you sit in the auditorium, you’re close to the central stage. You can also eyeball members of the audience opposite which is potentially distracting. So the technical challenge for any creative team is to create a fully rounded production. This staging of The 39 Steps exceeded my high expectation of SJT productions.

The story, set in the 1930s, revolves around upper-crust adventurer Richard Hannay. One night, bored to tedium, he decides to ‘Do something pointless, like going to the theatre.’ There, he meets a mysterious gun-wielding German woman who demands to stay in his London flat. Overnight she is stabbed by an unseen attacker. With her last breaths, she discloses to Hannay that spies are about to take top secret information abroad, causing catastrophic danger to the nation’s security.

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“Verbal and visual brilliance”

This unlikely scenario sets off a spectacular chain of events. Hannay, prime suspect for the murder, tries to elude the police while seeking out the spies. His daring-do mission takes him on The Flying Scotsman train to Scotland and around the country. It’s a romping yarn.

Patrick Barlow, the author, states in the SJT programme. ‘This version of The 39 Steps is based on John Buchan’s groundbreaking novel, Alfred Hitchcock’s iconic movie and the exquisite idea of two Northern writers, Nobby Dimon and Simon Corbie, of doing the whole thing with just four actors.’ That’s four actors taking on 250 characters, the vast majority played by just two of the cast! Inevitably, this a comic thriller.

Patrick Barlow’s version played in London’s West End for nine years, on Broadway for two and then toured 39 countries. People familiar with the book and film will, no doubt, find many affectionate references to them. Those, like me, who aren’t familiar, won’t have time to wonder what they’re missing. I have seen this adaptation once before and enjoyed it very much in a conventional auditorium. The SJT team’s re-working for theatre-in-the-round carries the script’s verbal and visual brilliance to new, dizzying heights.

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“Organic unity”

Paul Robinson, Artistic Director of the SJT, knows the space and his role inside-out. So, too do the others in the creative team; Designer, Helen Coyston, Lighting Designer Jason Taylor and the Composer/Sound Designer Simon Slater. They are absolutely integral to the success of the production, as are the stage management team and, at one point, even the theatre ushers. Together, they create an organic unity, making a complex staging challenge seem effortless.

The minimal set has multi-purpose, sliding furnishings. We are taken from interiors to the outside with the rotation of a door and a lighting change. Basic picture frames are used as windows which characters attempt to climb through or portraits on the walls of a grand house. Travel trunks store props, become seats, conceal actors as they change costume and character. A plank across two ladders becomes Edinburgh’s Forth Bridge from which Hannay dangles in an attempt to elude his pursuers.

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“Many comedy styles”

In one striking example of comic ingenuity, one character is ‘invited’ to accompany two ‘detectives’ to the police station. ‘How?’ she asks. ‘In the car,’ they reply. ‘What car?’ she asks. They look round. There is no car. So they make one, from a low wooden platform, 3 trunks and a fireguard. Stage management throws on a steering wheel and they’re ready to go. The bi-plane crash, apparently a first in theatrical history, is a triumph of all elements working in perfect unison.

Theatre conventions are broken casually. The actors take a bow, to canned applause, before the action starts. Throughout, there’s a running gag that the props and technicals aren’t working properly: Hannay can’t get the stopper out of a whisky decanter, his phone continues ringing after he picks it up, someone knocks on a door and a doorbell chimes. In fact, lighting, music and sound effects complement the action beautifully.

It’s a play of many comedy styles. There’s satire, slapstick, silent movie and many more. Perhaps most hilarious of all is the running joke of four actors struggling to play 250 parts. The train journey to Scotland has a wonderful set-piece with Laura Kirman donning three caps to play a train guard, policeman and passenger simultaneously. Hannay has a Punch-and-Judy fight with an opponent (played by Niall Ransome) in a stage box. But the opponent has to appear on the floor of the stage within a minute so he slithers out of his coat and Hannay continues to fight with the coat.

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“Total control”

The actors’ skills are awe-inspiring. To pull this challenge off, they need not just impeccable comic timing and ingenuity but speed, stamina and a highly developed sense of fun. The pace is breathtaking, particularly in the first half. These four play the gags and the audience to the hilt but never lose the story or desperation of the characters. Seemingly anarchic at times they are in total control and avoid the temptation to indulge themselves. Their antics in the train, clinging to its sides or on the roof are priceless.

Sam Jenkins-Shaw cuts a dash as dapper Richard Hannay with pipe, narrow moustache and a cut-glass accent. He slithers and slides his way out of trouble; once, literally, from under a corpse which lands across his lap. At one point, he makes three clumsy attempts to climb through a window before giving up and carrying the frame off-stage. But, however ruffled and flustered, he resumes the air of a somewhat vain, upright and decent chap. Landing in a political meeting and finding himself the guest speaker, he propounds the values of a ‘good world’ where neighbour helps neighbour and suspicion, cruelty and fear are banished. It’s the one serious speech of the play and is, essentially, the message of John Buchan’s novel. Jenkins-Shaw very effectively draws the audience into this, deserving his round of applause.

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“A delight from start to finish”

Amelia Donkor plays the German woman, a downtrodden Scottish farmer’s wife who helps him elude capture, and cold-hearted Margaret – who shops Hannay to the police twice and ultimately falls for him. The actor is playful, the characters beautifully nuanced and deadly serious. Handcuffed to Hannay when both are arrested, she removes her shoes and stockings while attempting to remain aloof. and dignified. It’s a very funny, captivating scene.

The obvious challenge for Laura Kirman and Niall Ransome is to play over 200 parts between them. And there’s the small matter of prop management, scene-shifting, multiple entrances and exits, and costume change too, of course. These actors’ versatility and ingenuity are staggering. Kirman attacks each character with relish and brilliant definition, from policeman to spy to tap dancer – and far more. Ransome transforms himself in seconds between opposing characters with barely time to draw breath. Together these two make a notable comic duo in complete rapport with each other and the audience.

I entered the theatre rather jaded. After 2 hours 15 minutes, I came out exhilarated. Every element of this production is a delight from start to finish. It’s utterly engrossing and very funny – a compelling Tour de Farce.

Pictures: Sam Taylor


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