The 39 Steps Review – Alex Wood

39 Steps Review by Alex Wood of Sardines Magazine

I had seen this show twice before – once in London (where the audience seemed full of tourists who knew the film and didn’t really get the idea that it was a spoof) and a touring production which went down exceedingly well with a Friday night Northampton audience. On both occasions it struck me as a very funny show.

Based on the classic novel by John Buchan and its 3 film adaptions (the most famous by Alfred Hitchcock) this version is by Patrick Barlow, who first made his name as founder of The National Theatre Of Brent, where just 2 performers would re-enact some key moment in history or the theatre in a melodramatic and comic way. (From time to time recordings of the show still appear on Radio 4 – well worth catching.)

Following that lead this 39 Steps spoof is re-enacted by 5 actors, playing over 100 roles between them. Our hero, Richard Hannay (Andrew Whiffin) is the only constant; The Woman (Clare Lester) being, in fact, three different women – secret agent Annabella Schmidt, who winds up murdered in his flat, Pamela, the young woman he meets and involves, very unwillingly at first, in his situation while he is on the run from the police and the farmer’s wife who yearns for city life. A vast array of multiple roles – underwear salesmen, police officers, a German spy, train guard, newspaper seller, a farmer, a hotel keeper and his wife, Mr Memory, etc, etc, etc – are played by the two men described in the programme as Clown 1 ( Dave Smith) and Clown 2 (Nik Lester). This production also involved a radio announcer (John Bennett).

This is a great show – but a large part of its success relies on the 4 actors who are on stage for most of the show. One has a large central role, another has two large roles and the two Clowns have a huge variety of roles which often require them to change character in seconds or even less. All this with the most basic scenery; the actors are totally exposed.

In summary I enjoyed this show, presented as if it were the original 1935 film – there was even popcorn on sale in the foyer! The rest of the audience had a good time too.

Andrew Whiffin did a fine job as John Hannay, a jaded colonial type, looking for an adventure after his return to London. Andrew’s delivery of his lines was just right, nicely accented and clearly spoken, movement just so, played very much as a worldly-wise man of action. He was helped by his costume of a fine tweed suit – exactly the sort of thing a man like Hannay would wear.

I also enjoyed Clare Lester’s performance as Annabella Schmidt, Pamela and the farmer’s wife. A showcase really as Miss Schmidt is some sort of secret agent and German and the farmer’s wife was Scots, whereas Pamela is very much an English rose, unwillingly caught up in something that annoys and confuses her; Clare passed this test very well.

Also appreciated was the way that Andrew and Clare balanced the need for a careful balancing act between needing to present themselves as ‘serious’ characters who were also able to deliver comedy when needed.

Hence the description of the roles played by Dave Smith and Nik Lester as Clowns 1 and 2 – with their far more obvious and numerous comic roles, all played, in one way or another, for laughs. Much of what they did needed to be seen to be appreciated but I especially enjoyed Nik as Mr Memory, the ‘excuse me’ business when the underwear salesmen need to move round a confined railway compartment, the scarily Presbyterian Scottish farmer (Dave) and the hotel owner and his kind-hearted wife.

John Bennett played the role of the somewhat camp Radio Announcer with aplomb.

The show also employed a ‘sound effect orchestra’ which was great fun, as was the use of stage crew to represent station signs, police officers, the headlights of cars chasing Hannay over the moors etc. The very mobile set – in a doubly busy night for the stage crew – was excellent and the show was (with the exception of a kilt, where I think spoofery went a bit too far!) –was well-costumed.

Because of the brilliance of the play and the very hard work of the cast this was a very entertaining show.

I did have an issue with the age of both the principals who, in an ideal world, would both have been younger – I am trying to be honest, not unkind here, and I know from my own experience that this can be a tricky issue for amateur companies.

Nik Lester and Dave Smith both worked extremely hard at their parts which involved a great deal of good comic timing, quick changes and physical theatre. This often came off well but at times (especially the scene at Edinburgh station) things got a bit ragged. There were laughs but, I think, because things didn’t work out, rather than the sharp quick changes that should have been taking place. Professional actors with weeks to rehearse can do this with ease and it’s much harder for amateurs – perhaps slowing down a little might be the answer.

That said, thank you once again Banbury Cross Players for a very enjoyable night out.

See also Review by Lance Bassett – Oxford Mail