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I have no words to describe LUTG’s The 39 Steps, which is problematic when it comes to reviewing a play. It was the type of production that without having seen it, it’s difficult to describe, and even now I’m unsure whether I watched several hours of chaos or comedy genius.
For those who don’t know The 39 Steps, the play is adapted from Scottish novelist John Buchan’s 1915 text and is best known for the various film adaptations it has inspired over the years. Re-written into this four-actor version of the play, it moves from melodrama to comedy, characterised by its quick changes for the actors between characters. One actor plays Richard Hannay (Finn Burridge), the hero caught unawares in the centre of the action, while a second actress (Rachel Morris) who plays the three women Hannay has romantic engagements with. The two other actors (Sophie Goodman and Patrick Burton) play every villain, hero, man, woman, and politician Hannay encounters along the way. The skill of playing multiple characters is hard enough, but sometimes playing various roles at once gave this small group of actors a more significant challenge.
The slapstick comedic style characterised this production, and that required a complete suspension of disbelief. The story is an elaborate one, moving between London and the Scottish Highlands via a train in-between. With such varied settings, the actors utilised physical theatre and mime elements well to communicate their locations effectively. True to this slapstick style, there were absurd scenarios, repeated jokes and farce, with everything from the exaggerated facial expressions to the comedic accents making the whole thing ridiculous. And therefore utterly hysterical.
While the actors and production team used the space well, I was unsure about the choice of Dalton Rooms as a venue. I don’t know if the venue choice was intentional or by lack of other options, but because of this space’s size, the stage took an unusual shape through the audience in a sort of half-catwalk style set up. While this did enable the actors to engage with the audience, I wonder if it would have been better performed in the round so that the main bulk of the action didn’t just run through the audience but all around them. One of the massive advantages to Dalton’s as a venue was the availability of cocktails at halftime, keeping the audience in good humour and making it a social event as well as a play. So, while curious as a choice, they did use the space to great comic (and alcoholic) effect.
Patrick Burton has to get a special mention. His acting provided some of the great comic highlights of the evening, particularly in his role as Mrs Jordan which simultaneously conveyed an air of caring wife, creepy old witch and a slightly crazy person with a taste for yodel music. Finn Burridge also successfully expressed the befuddled, stiff upper lipped Hannay with conviction, and Rachel Morris switched between the various female parts admirably. Sophie Goodman had some great moments in her roles as Mr Memory and Mrs McGarrile, demonstrating an adept versatility. As a cast, they showed their best sides in the various technical faults of the evening. From a table collapsing on stage to handcuffs falling off mid-scene, the group faced a challenge. But in true comedy style, they paused with each mistake, emphasising it and making it all the funnier.
While The 39 Steps was chaotic, it was a brilliant comedy. By no means was this LUTG’s smoothest or most technical production, but it was the perfect end to the year and a tremendous amount of fun.