The 39 Steps – April 2008

8/10

By John Buchan, adapted by Patrick Barlow from the Hitchcock film of the novel

Directed by Maria Aitken, redirected for tour by David Newman

Venue: Yvonne Arnaud Theatre

Date: Tuesday 22nd April 2008

There were so many visual images in this production that I’m not sure I’ll get even half of them down. Unlike Doctor in the House last week, this show managed to get just the right tone when making use of their “mistakes”. Early on, Hannay and Annabella Schmidt are in his flat, and both look at the phone. He says, ‘it’s the phone’, and then it rings. Very funny.

It’s all good fun, with lots of knockabout silly humour. When escaping through a window, Hannay shoves his head and shoulders through, then realises he won’t be able to get any further, so he just lets the window frame slide down and steps out of it, handing it back to his lovely Scottish hostess afterwards. What a thoughtful man.

The performance started with an announcement about switching off phones, watches, etc, done old style, which was good fun, and then there was a period of strobe lighting as the cast brought on furniture for Hannay’s flat. I couldn’t watch the strobe, so for me the action began when the lights came on to reveal Hannay sitting in his flat. There was a comfy chair, table, hat stand, window frame and some other shapes covered in sheets. Otherwise the set was a bare stage, with the brick wall showing at the back. On either side there were theatre boxes, for use at the London Palladium.

Hannay talks about his disillusionment with life in London – no friends, nothing interesting to do, sigh. It’s a lovely performance, mixing the stiff upper lip gentleman, man of action, and tongue in cheek approach very nicely. When he brings an exotic woman back to his flat, she’s wary of being seen at the window, insisting he lower the blinds before he puts the light on. He does so, and when he checks out her story that there are two men waiting underneath a lamppost in the street below, the other two actors rush on in great coats, carrying a lamppost to stand under. When Hannay releases the blind, they dash off again, only to reappear the next time he checks. The third time, Hannay can’t quite make up his mind whether to look or not, leading to a stop-start bit of confusion, and some exasperation from the men, as they eventually head back into the wings, trailing their lamppost.

These men were played by Colin Mace and Alan Perrin, who played a vast number of parts between them, often more than one at the same time. They carried spare hats with them for some very quick changes, and also swapped coats so that the two hoteliers could talk to the two fake policemen. At the end, Colin Mace also put his police coat on, but only on one side, so that by turning from side to side he could play two people having a conversation. It’s remarkable how well it all came across, and it’s a testament to how hard these actors were working.

The train sequence was excellent. The sheets had been whipped off the trunks in Hannay’s flat by the cleaning lady who discovers the dead woman (do keep up), so they’re easily moved to form two rows of seats. As the train chugs along towards Scotland, the actors move with it (from the post show, this took some time to get the hang of, jiggling and talking at the same time, but it all fell into place eventually). When the train stops in Edinburgh (the platform sign moves across the stage, then comes to a halt), the guard and a paper seller materialise, and have a long conversation. Rather too long, I felt, and then Hannay himself asks them to get a move on. With the police now searching the train, Hannay opts for the snogging disguise, only the young woman he’s just assaulted takes exception to this and gives him away. He then climbs out of the window, and clambers back along the train (you know the sequence), eventually being pursued along the top of the train. As the woman and policeman look out of the window after him, they’re buffeted by the wind – she holds the brim of her hat, and gets it to shake in very realistic way, and the policeman does something similar. Hannay’s coat is blowing out behind him, and it all looked very effective. Eventually he gets on to the bridge, and there’s a ramp brought on across the back of the stage to show him falling into the river. It’s a great way to do an action sequence on stage, and it was both exciting and funny, an unusual combination.

Later, after Hannay has climbed out of the window, he’s chased across the hills, and escapes on the other side of the loch. This is the bit we see in silhouette. A white sheet comes down, and cut-outs of the banks of the loch come in on each side. Wee figures run down the hillside, then Hannay appears on the other side, as does a stag, and he’s off to apparent safety. The story followed the Hitchcock film so closely that we even got the mandatory appearance by the great man himself. During this part, as Hannay was racing up the far side of the loch, a silhouette of Hitchcock came on and walked about a bit on the left hillside. Then a plane appears from our left, and starts to follow him (Hannay, that is). The pole it’s on isn’t long enough to stop us seeing the hand holding it, as the plane flies over the loch and the far bank. Then, as the cut-outs are taken away, the actor involved has to make a quick getaway, though not too quick for us to miss the fun. There’s still some silhouette work, but with Hannay running around behind the sheet – he really did work hard, that chap.

The section in the house on the other side of the loch (the one owned by the man with the missing part of one finger – and we all know what that means!) involved a lot of doors. Actually, there was one door, but Mrs X (don’t remember her name) kept leading Hannay through it, then wheeling it around to give them another doorway opportunity.

The hotel that Hannay stays in with the young woman he’s handcuffed to (look, watch the film on DVD if you don’t know what’s going on!) had a wonderfully silly couple in charge. The room they’re shown to was a large wardrobe, which opened out to reveal a fold-up bed. They also had a fireplace, and frankly I’ve stayed in worse. The woman manages to slip the handcuff off her wrist, and creeps downstairs, just in time to hear the two fake policemen discuss bumping both of them off, so now she’s on Hannay’s side.

Hannay heads back down to London to stop the villain getting the secret plans out of the country. He heads for the London Palladium, a tip based on the woman overhearing the fake policemen’s conversation, and he realises the plans are securely hidden in the mind of Mr Memory. We’d seen Mr Memory before, and been amazed at his prodigious powers of recall. Sadly, we weren’t actually able to ask any questions ourselves, and less kind people might have thought the questions were possibly planted, but we put those ideas to one side, and just enjoyed seeing a master at work. Alas, the poor chap gets shot, and then the villain gets killed by a fifth man. He dies (and that takes long enough!) complaining that there’s only supposed to be four people in the cast, so whose arm was it that came through the curtain and shot him? We’ll never know. His dead body tumbled to the ground, looking suspiciously like a dummy.

After that, Mr Memory dies backstage, while the policeman and the stage manager have their two-in-one conversation. Hannay and the woman shake hands and he heads back to his lonely flat, now clear of dead bodies, to have a proper brood in a manly way. I think she turns up later, but I’m getting a bit hazy on some of the details. Anyway, it was a fun ending, and we all applauded very loudly as we’d enjoyed ourselves so much.

There was a post-show. A large number of folk stayed behind, mostly youngsters, and they asked some interesting questions. A couple got the seal of approval from the cast: how many people were helping out behind the scenes so that they could do all the quick changes, etc., and what did they do between a matinee and evening performance, given that they were working really hard during each show. I forget how many people there were helping out (but lots), but for the second question the point was made that when performance time comes round, there’s an adrenalin boost that sees them through – “Doctor Theatre”. They also explained that, unlike most tours of a West End show, they were a completely new cast, and had to learn how the play was currently being done, rather than developing their own characters, although it was inevitable that they would end up doing things according to their own styles. Their favourite scene was the train sequence, and they did mention that in an earlier performance elsewhere, which a member of this audience had been to, the lights hadn’t worked for the silhouette part, so it briefly turned into a radio play for that night only.

It was an interesting post-show with lots of questions, and all the cast getting a chance to participate, so we went home well happy. Definitely one to see again, and possibly the West End version, to see if there are any significant differences?

© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me