The 39 Steps performed at West Walls Theatre
Written by Patrick Barlow
Directed by Lexie Ward
Full disclosure: Alfred Hitchcock's The 39 Steps is one of my favourite ever films. For that reason alone I have always avoided going to see the play whenever it has been staged. I'd heard vague mentions of it being some hideous pastiche version. A cannibalised mockery of the original Hitchcock classic, and that was something I had no wish to see. There's nothing funny about watching the good old days ripped apart by a modern eye's lampooning.
As per most things in life, I was proven to be completely and totally wrong.
When I read in the Green Room Club's season brochure earlier this year that they would be staging the play I was my usual cynical self and planned my usual avoidance tactic. This held firm until just a few weeks ago when the inevitable media kicked in about the production. The play was being directed by Lexie Ward - the same director of the brilliant Tom, Dick And Harry last year and the sublime Boeing Boeing the year before. The cast was also to be made up of regulars from those very shows including the never less than exceptional Caroline Robertson and, perhaps bravely, the chap who fell ill during the run of Tom, Dick and Harry and had to be replaced on the evening I saw the play by the director herself.
With this collection of reliable hands I felt that even if I was unable to enjoy the show, I would at least be able to take something from the performances and so swallowed my pride and booked a ticket.
The plot follows Richard Hannay, something of a charming everyman as he becomes embroiled in a sinister spy network after a chance encounter with a foreign agent while enjoying a night at the theatre. How I've often wished to be so fortunate! When the agent is killed, Hannay must traverse the length of the country hotly persuaded by the law to find a contact in Scotland in the hope of uncovering the truth behind the mysterious '39 Steps'. The contact proves to be the very spy that ordered the death of the original agent so Hannay is forced to track back to London where he discovers the source of the plot was in the very show he was watching in the first place.
If this makes the plot sound ridiculous quite simply this is because it is. It is however also an exact duplicate of Hitchcock's film version. While I was worried the story would be ripped to pieces for humorous ridicule, in fact it proved to be a lovingly accurate telling of the original plot. So much so that I'm reasonably sure great chunks of the dialogue are lifted directly from the original film. Certainly I felt myself mouthing along with certain scenes!
So, if this was a faithful re-telling of the original film where does the 'high octane humour' come in? Simple. Despite the enormous collection of characters met by Hannay on his quest, the cast comprised of only four members.
As a result, as the story licked on at an extraordinary pace, three members of the cast dashed in and out at breathtaking speed playing every single individual our hero encountered. All 50+ of them.
Seb Coombe played Richard Hannay from beginning to end and despite almost never leaving the stage for the entire duration you couldn't help but feel that he had the easiest job up there. Not that his performance isn't worthy of the highest possible praise. From the moment he strode purposefully on stage as Big Ben struck the hour (more on Big Ben later) to his final kiss with his third love interest of the evening, Coombe exuded a debonair charm that one can only assume must come from a lifetime of being one of the most handsome men in any given room. His performance was sharp and crisp, poised and heroic yet all the while never less than charismatic. I believe I commented in my review of The Importance of Being Earnest that Algernon must surely have been the role Coombe was born to play. I was wrong. I can't believe I'd have found a more perfect Richard Hannay if I'd have trekked the length of the country to see a show at the West End.
Hannay's three love interests over the course of the play, the sly and sexy Germanic Anabella, timid and lovelorn Scottish Margaret and stiff and uptight English rose Pamela were all played with barely disguised relish by Caroline Robertson. Playing three such contrasting characters, Robertson imbued each and every one with a distinct voice, tone, and physical presence that seared each of the individuals into the mind of the audience so there was never any chance of forgetting the trail our hero left in his wake. Despite only appearing in the first two scenes, you could never forget witnessing the stern tones of the raven haired Anabella seduce Hannay only to die in his arms moments later, or the ever so sweet pigtailed Margaret lose herself in talk of Hannay's life and allow herself to be swept off her feet. (At what cost I wonder? The play wisely chooses to ignore poor Margaret's likely unpleasant face at the hands of her fearsome husband). For me, it was uppity Pamela that stole my heart, not least thanks to two pieces of superbly choreographed japes involving handcuffs and a field gate, followed by handcuffs and the removal of stockings. Out of context this probably says more about me than it does the performance, but suffice to say the expressions on Robertson and Coombe's face as Hannay's hand slapped against Pamela's thing only to seductively be dragged down her leg almost brought the house down.
Now, I've written all this and mentioned only four characters. There's a simple reason. Every other character in the production is played by just two men. Referred to as 'Clowns' in the programme, which might be the most apt description of the duo I've come across. If that sounds insulting, it really isn't meant to. I mean clown's in the most traditional sense - people who are quite literally born to entertain. Michael Spencer and James Sparks play, over the course of two hours, what must be 40+ characters and every single one of them was unique. Each had a different costume - or at the very least a different hat! - as well as a different voice and a different personality. They'd switch accents in a heartbeat - most impressively during a hilarious scene where Hannay is accosted by two underwear salesmen on a train to Scotland, only to arrive to find a newspaper boy, porter and policeman on the platform all practically talking at once. That this was achieved by the pair simply moving a few steps around the stage and swapping hats was like watching a perfectly constructed army drill, with each peace slotting seamlessly together and the pace not slowing for a single breath. It has become easy to assume Spencer and Sparks can turn their hand to any accent, over the last few years alone they've been Albanian, Cockney, Yorkshire, and Geordie to name just a few, but to see them flit so effortlessly through such a cavalcade of voices was undoubtedly impressive all the same. As we've come to expect, their comic timing throughout was flawless, riding a crest of energy that surged from their first appearance until their hysterical snow scene at the end.
I understand director Lexie Ward was recently awarded for her direction of last years Tom, Dick and Harry. Watching The 39 Steps it is no mystery as to why. I've tried desperately to find some aspect of this production with which to pick fault, having nothing but relentless praise feels so unlike me. And yet, I can't. Two moments particularly worthy of praise were the remarkable effectiveness of the Fourth Bridge scene - our hero Hannay is left hanging from the bridge in question having jumped from a train, cunningly constructed with just a few painted boxes that only moments before hand been the very train itself - only to be followed by an ingenious aeroplane chase in which Hannay is fleeing from a fighter plane, brought to life simply by Coombe running hell for leather in a spotlight, while Spencer and Sparks done pilots attire and waggle around on a vintage bicycle. The resulting crash in which they practically launch themselves into the audience produced such hysterical applause it was impossible not to be swept up by the sheer ambition of it all. The lighting was inventive, sharp and used to enhance the production to its fullest effect. The sound effects were so precise there was never even the slightest doubt in the audiences mind that the 'slip ups' were ever anything less than deliberate, and the sound scape itself effectively filled in the blanks of creating the lost and empty moors or rushing intensity of a train carriage. Several sound cues were so effective as to produce laughs all by themselves whether they be subtle as a brick murder stings or hilariously upbeat party music playing from the villain's house.
Finally, I must mention the set itself. The Green Room sets have been going from strength to strength recently, and The 39 Steps must surely be the icing on the cake. On one side of stage is a beautifully drawn express train with, unless I was very much mistaken, the profile of Hitchcock himself lovingly rendered in the smoke, while on the other stood a painting of Big Ben - impressive enough a piece of design on its own - but as the play opened and the clock chimed, its face lit up and the hands began manically spinning. Even if they remainder of the audience didn't join me, I applauded right there and then. With the ensuing production that followed I'd haven been quite happy to continue until I had nothing left but gristly stumps.
All in all, an absolute triumph of a production that stands tall amongst the very best shows I have ever been privileged enough to see be they amateur or professional. The fact that I had no intention of ever seeing it in the first place simply stands as irrefutable proof that I truly know nothing about anything.