The 39 Steps – Review – Theatre@41, York
By Alex Mair, November 2021
There’s an old theatrical story that has become apocryphal in theatre circles. After a less than satisfactory production of a play in Blackpool, the actress playing the main part in the play was asked by a journalist what went wrong. Her reply has gone down in legend; ‘the play was a success; it was the audience who was a letdown’. I felt a similar feeling during the York Settlement Community Players’ latest production, The 39 Steps.
Originally released to a grateful public as a spy novel by John Buchan (published as The Thirty-Nine Steps) and first serialized in 1915, the novel has probably had the longest afterlife of any thriller of its time. Ian Fleming and John Le Carré were both admirers of the book, and the novel provided the inspiration, to a greater or lesser degree, for their literary creations; James Bond and George Smiley.
It’s November and it’s the perfect time of year to settle down to a thrilling and exciting evening of theatre. York Settlement Community Players, however, choose to go in a different direction to the one I was expecting. Cross-dressing, zany characters and Sherlock-esque escapades rarely feature in this grim Edwardian thriller, but the company have made it happen. But sadly, the script, adapted by Patrick Barlow from the novel, doesn’t work for me.
I found the comedy injected into this thriller a bit of a letdown, but perhaps I’m in the minority because most of the audience were laughing along. I think, partially, this was due to the cast, who give it their absolute all. They throw absolutely everything, including the kitchen sink, into the production and the enthusiasm rubbed off on the audience. The standout performance is from Dan Boyle, who is very charismatic. Sanna Buck and Matthew Lomax should also be singled out for fine performances.
In the end, I have mixed feelings about this production. The British sitcom humour might have been exactly the winter tonic the audience needed on this cold November night, but I just wanted more of the novel’s threat and dread. Perhaps it’s best if I paraphrase the Blackpool actress for this production by saying; the cast were a success; it was the playwright who was a letdown.
images: John Saunders