The 39 Steps at Theatre by the Lake
Written by Patrick Barlow
Directed by Abigail Anderson
Hindsight is a wonderful thing.
I've been lucky enough to see a lot of theatre in my life both amateur and professional and, as a serial consumer, it's inevitable that a degree of repetition will be involved somewhere down the line. I've lost count of the number of 'Oliver!'s' I've seen but can tell you off the top of my head exactly how many 'Oompah's appear in that infernal song. I've born witness to so many iterations of Aykbourn's 'Time of your Life' I could happily play all seven versions of the waiter character without needing a script and feel I'm a veteran racing expert despite never visiting a racetrack thanks to endless performances of the relentlessly flogged 'Ladies Day'.
As much as I try to view each show with an open mind and to assess it purely on its own merits and flaws it's near to impossible to completely disregard any other versions I carry with me. It's human nature to compare like with like and, loathe though I may be to admit it, I'm only human after all.
This temptation to compare and contrast is thrown into even sharper focus when comparing amateur with professional productions. Amateur theatre with all its endless enthusiasm, energy, spirit and ambition can all too easily be overshadowed and made to look small or insignificant when considered against the big, slick, seemingly effortless professional affairs. This isn't a criticism. Amateur theatre (when done well at least) strives for the same standards and only falls short because of its own unique limitations; usually the overwhelming burdens of budget and space. And yet, despite knowing all of this to be true, despite making a mental note to judge a production uniquely on its own merits, I'll invariably find myself sat in a theatre having watched a professional show only for my first thought to be 'It was so much better...'
Why all this preamble? The very first review I posted on this blog was of Carlisle Green Room's production of The 39 Steps. It's fair to say I raved about it, going so far as to call it 'one of the finest productions I have ever seen, amateur or professional.' Not wanting to have to so quickly eat those words, I tried to banish any such thoughts from my head as I took my seat to enjoy Theatre by the Lake's interpretation. The stage was festooned with beautiful vintage props, knick-knacks and doo-dads. It took several minutes to take in every delicious detail of the set - on the surface Richard Hannay's flat mid decoration - but I couldn't resist jumping ahead and imagining how the scaffolding tower would be used in situ to represent the fourth bridge, how the chairs and piles of wooden planks would fit together to spontaneously produce a train or a plane and how locations from the length of the country would be woven from the adorning trinkets. Six white boxes this was not.
Curiously, rather than getting stuck into the story, director Abigail Anderson chooses to add an inventive framing device to the narrative. The flat is in fact not Hannay's at all, but belongs to a man and wife who have two decorators in. The Hitchcock film The 39 Steps is currently all the rage; all over the newspapers and on the radio, and with a little encouragement all four begin to act out scenes from the book which, in turn, morphs into the show itself. It's a sweet enough introduction but is ultimately unnecessary. The play is more than strong enough to stand on its own without needing propping up with extra material to justify its existence.
Johnny McPherson leads from the front as the charismatic and cool Richard Hannay. Suave and charming, he makes the part seem effortless. Even when surrounded by the larger than life characters of John Buchan's spy story, it's almost impossible to take your eyes off him for a second. Frances Marshall's turn as Hannay's trio of love interests is sadly less successful. While she certainly looks the part as beautiful English rose Pamela, her barely Germanic Anabella and quietly Scottish Margaret fail to leave much of an impression. Patrick Bridgman and Richard Earl fare better as the duo tasked with filling every other role in the plot. Both are clearly very skilled actors as they manage to create 20+ readily identifiable characters each and both are clearly having a ball with their clowning but, similar to Marshall's performance, I felt they could have pushed it a lot further. Certain characters were played with an almost subtle, nuanced eye and, in a farce as ridiculous as The 39 Steps it's a case of go big or go home. I wonder if this was a deliberate move on the part of Anderson. By adding a framing device and having these characters deliberately played by actual people rather than simply revelling in the meta nature having two poor actors play dozens of characters, was the point to produce a more subtle, justified interpretation? Is this a delicate souffle version of a usually hard and fast farce? If this is indeed the case then I can't help but feel that Anderson has very much missed the point.
This is compounded by the fact that the silliest bits of the production that are by far the most effective. Using miniature train and plane models to sell the ludicrous chase sequences, having the actors move through and interact with the audience during the Palladium scenes, the ludicrous Producers-Esq 'Hop-Clop' dance routine that merges into a Goosestep and, perhaps most hysterically of all, having an actor stand on stage for no other reason than to 'Moo' for the duration of the Crofter's scene. It's silly, it's stupid and it's what makes it spectacular. It's this silliness that should be the heart of the show. To worry about justification and subtlety meanwhile is a waste of time.
Which brings me to the elephant in the room.
As I said at the opening of this review, hindsight it a wonderful thing. If I had seen the Theatre by the Lake's production before I had seen Carlisle Green Room's, I would have written something very different. I tried not to compare the shows. I didn't think it would be fair. And it isn't.
Because Carlisle Green Room's was far, far superior.
It's not just the way the production approached its characters, though it would be remiss of me not to explicitly state that Robertson, Spencer and Sparks presented far and away more memorable and amusing interpretations and, excellent though McPherson was, I could not claim him to be 'better' than Coombe.
No, the reason for my thinking can be summed up in just one word: PACE.
Carlisle Green Room's production didn't pause for breath. From the moment Hannay encountered Anabella in the Theatre, to the closing snowy moments at the end, the pace was relentless. Not a single moment or heartbeat was wasted. In stark contrast, TbtL's production moved at a saunter. There was no sense of urgency, no frenzied hysterical mania pulling you forward through the story. Everything apologetically took as long as it took. Minutes at a time would be spent shifting props, constructs and costumes killing stone dead any sense of pace. Had I not so recently seen such a relentlessly speedy version of the show I'd likely have known no better and thought nothing of it, but here I found myself actually looking at my watch wondering how long it would take to move on. By my estimations, the TbtL production lasted some 25 minutes longer than the Green Room's. Allowing perhaps 10 minutes for the unnecessary bolted on beginning and end, that's 15 whole minutes of watching scenery move around. Having beautifully constructed scenery is all well and good, but if that's the price you pay I'll watch painted white boxes any day.
I read an article in The Stage recently that claimed the gap between amateur and professional theatre is rapidly closing. Now more than ever I can see that to be true. TbtL may offer style over substance, but Carlisle Green Room has both in spades.