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4 actors. 3339 (ish) characters. 1 stage. On walking into the Nuffield Theatre on Sunday, week 7 for the final showing of The 39 Steps, I was greeted by a stage littered with all manner of props, and a selection of chairs, tables, boxes, ladders and doors that would form the staging. I knew I was in for a riotous evening.
The story has transmuted several times since its conception as a serial in a magazine: into a book, through several films, and in this guise, as a melodramatic stage adaptation. It tells the tale of the frightfully handsome Richard Hannay (Jamie Steele) who finds himself the chief suspect in the murder enquiry of Annabella Shmitt, an intense woman of non-descript European origin whom he invites into his house. The story then follows Hannay’s adventures on the run, helped, and often hindered, by two clowns (Liz Duggan and Liam Wells) and love interests (Cat Sturman). Duggan and Wells also act act as the countless other characters Hannay encounters on his mission to discover what the 39 Steps really are and maintain national security in the face of various German villains and spies.
The actors and production team worked together to make what is a heinously complex play to stage seem easy and seamless, and as this was director Andy Ainscough’s 11th play with LUTG, it was clear the cast were in expert hands. While slapstick comedy isn’t always to everyone’s tastes, the audience responded favourably with raucous laughter to the physical comedy, comic musical interludes, and copious cross dressing by the two clowns, with Liam Wells at times putting Hustle’s illustrious entertainer to shame. My only minor criticisms would be that at times the musical cues drowned out some of the dialogue, and unfortunately due to my position at the end of the row, some of the physical gags were lost on me as they were blocked by actors or props. I think, however, this was down to the unfortunate placing of my seat, as it was clear from the audience’s laughter that the jokes had not been missed by others.
The array of different accents pulled off by the cast as Hannay moved up through Scotland and battled various villains were phenomenal, with Jamie Steele flawlessly maintaining his received pronunciation while Cat Sturman portrayed a trembling Glaswegian and the feisty love interest Pamela, with the two Clowns filling in everything in between. The simplistic props and staging were highly effective, with ladders enabling a death-defying jump from a bridge, and a high speed escape from a train. Large place-signs were used in collaboration with bag pipe music and Scottish dancing from the cast as they moved props for the scene change to leave us in no doubt as to when Hannay had reached Scotland. A tricky scene involving Hannah being pursued by two police, their dogs, and two pilots attempting to shoot Hannay down as he fled across the Highlands was masterfully conveyed with Tim Burton-esque shadow puppets – a clever response to what could be some terrifying stage directions.
From what I could tell, everyone in the audience thoroughly enjoyed Andy Ainscough’s hilarious production, and I feel that the one person who I overheard using the term ‘unrehearsed’ when talking about the play must have entirely missed the point of the delayed cues and gesticulations at the production team, which were evidently integral to successfully portraying the slapstick nature of the play.
I feel that Liz Duggan deserves a special mention for having to play multiple characters all at the same time, donning moustaches, hats and accents in order to swap roles throughout the closing act, and for reeling off a mathematical equation so long and at such speed when explaining the secret behind the 39 Steps, that even Maths students could only balk at it. I can only wish that the play had run for even more performances than it did, as I would highly recommend it. If you missed it you’ll never know what the 39 Steps actually are, for if I told you that, I’d have to kill you…