Cast and crew perfectly in step

Don't take a fence: James Weetman as Richard Hannay finds fences a problem when handcuffed to Pamela played by Samantha Holden

The 39 Steps

Hall Green Little Theatre

*****

FEW plays are as daft as Patrick Barlow's manic adaptation of Alfred Hitchcock's classic 1935 film, itself based on John Buchan's classic 1915 spy thriller, but to pull it off successfully it needs a deft touch and impeccable timing.

Get that wrong and daft can degenerate into just plain silly and the cast of four(ish)* rose to the challenge, up all 39 steps one might say, in some considerable style.

James Weetman is a suave, stiff, to the point of solid, upper-lipped English chap who is always there to do the right thing and save the nation.  Hannay, Richard Hannay is the name, gentleman adventurer, bored with life and even his club.

Assisting, or otherwise, are our attractive heroines, a sort of buy one get two free offer with Samanatha Holden managing to remember which wig and frock she was supposed to be wearing with no problem as she appears as first a foreign agent, the voluptuous, seductive and soon to be the late Annabella Schmidt, then flirty Margaret the wellie wearing Crofter's wife and finally the reluctant, upper class Pamela who finally believes Hannay's tale of being framed for murder and his attempts to thwart the mysterious foreign power stealing British secrets.

Flying around them like a pair of Jack Russells just let loose in the park are Steve Parsons and Chris Butler who play the other 131 parts superbly covering everything from police and paper sellers, ladies underwear salesmen, the mysterious Professor Jordan, and his wife, spies, the Mr Memory variety act, a Scottish landlady and her husband along with assorted hillocks, tussocks and a stream.

Richard Hannay finds himself confused with an election candidate watched by Pamela and the two spies posing as policemen, Chris Butler (left) and Steve Parsons.

There are some wonderful comic scenes in the play such as when Pamela, who has ended up handcuffed to Hannay, who she believes to be a murderer, slowly takes off her stockings in the Scottish boarding house with Hannay – eyes almost crossed attempting to avert his gaze – finds his hand following hers up and down her legs.

Steve Parson in a frock is another memorable sight as he gives us a bottom wiggling Mrs Jordan or unintelligible Scottish landlady while Chris Butler is a chameleon of a Professor Jordan changing from friendly Scottish Laird to sneering foreign (possibly Jerry) infiltrator with a gun.

Both, listed in the cast as merely Man, have a mammoth task and must be exhausted by the end with so many changes, parts and accents to contend with.

Accents, by the way, are a big feature. They are all a little cartoony – ve haf vays of meeking yo tock and all that but that is the point. The whole play is not about realism, it is an affectionate send up of the 1935 film and other Hitchcock classics and the cast managed not only credible accents but kept them consistent.

Part of the cleverness of the script comes from the set – or rather lack of it.

Windows are merely frames, rooms are represented by a door and frame on wheels, the Forth Bridge by a collection of ladders while cars and trains are created from what is there.

Special effects (in the loosest sense of the word) abound and even include what is reliably reputed to be the only theatrical mid-air bi-plane crash ever staged.

This was the formula laid down by the original West Yorkshire Playhouse production in 2005 and continues to this day with the long running West End production at the wonderful Criterion Theatre in Piccadilly.

Director Edward James Stokes, who also designed the set, has kept faithfully to the original and, to his credit and that of his cast and crew, the scene changes, apart from the dramatic setting up of the mid-air bi-plane crash, which is entirely understandable, are fast enough not to lose momentum.

Knickers anyone? Hannay on the run encounters ladies underwear salesman Chris Butler (left) and Steve Parsons on The Flying Scotsman

It is a small point but give the audience time to blink and think between scene changes and the pace, which is the engine for much of the fun, is lost and HGLT largely avoided that little pitfall.

Apart from the cast there ought to be a special mention for Linda Neal and Tony O'Hagan, the lighting operators. No slide ‘em up at the start, down again at the end here.

With standard lamps going on and off, fires, chases, trains, stations and even the London Palladium to cope with this is a script littered with lighting cues and they didn't appear to miss a one.

The same applies to Derek Jones, Dean Taylor and Simon Nall on sound who provide almost an extra character with trains, car chases, radio announcements, telephones and all manner of effects from sheep to romance all provided on cue.

This is an excellent production which is slick, fast, furious and more important, gloriously funny. Fail to laugh at this and perhaps someone should call an undertaker. To 24-03-12.

Roger Clarke

*Just one tiny observation . . . the play claims a cast of just four but in the dramatic, terror filled(ish) ending with all four actors facing death, or worse, and all together on stage . . . where does the hand with a gun come from? Answer that with just your just four people! Is there still a spy out there . . . ?

 

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