Association of Community Theatre
Show Reviews 2017
THE THIRTY-NINE STEPS
Adapted by Patrick Barlow from a novel by John Buchan
This melodrama/ extravaganza is based on the original novel written in 1915 and a subsequent film in 1935. The adaptation of the entire story calls for the whole adventure to be performed by a cast of four, actually split into three and one. The one actor is entirely the story teller and hero, Richard Hannay exclusively, while the other three play every other character in the play – a vast panorama of heroes, villains, men, women, children and inanimate objects, which include a motor-car, a train and even featuring a flock of sheep all in which Hannay is involved, but only as Hannay
The cast is supported by a back stage team responsible for lighting effects, sound, an array of changes – the provision, distribution and disappearance of which continues perpetually as the thirty-three scenes are unfolded in all different locations where the story takes place. It is a huge challenge for any company brave and talented enough to take it on because in addition to many lightning, quick, costume changes necessary for the actors as their characters continually change, all sorts of innovative creations have to appear for the four of them to tell the story against – aeroplanes in flight, a simulated Firth of Forth bridge, a London Music hall, various cottages, offices and a hotel, the Scottish moors at night, the London Palladium outside, backstage and on stage – all suggested and conveyed by backstage working in precision with overworked actors.
Of course, each production is influenced by the theatre each company works in, its size and facilities, membership available, time and availability of materials, people and design skill, plus other local factors too numerous to mention which have to be overcome and dealt with. I have now seen this play six times, twice professionally, and on each occasion, including yours, I have left the theatre having had a joyous evening, marvelling at the ingenuity, skill, adaptability, humour, never say die spirit and sheer speed and fitness of all involved.
Your wide stage was adaptable for the abundance of scenes and locations you had to provide and you did that ingeniously with a modicum of furniture and a large supply of the bits and pieces suggested and blended into the necessities required. Ladders, chairs, standard lamp, the surrounding black flats plus a proliferation of hand held props all amalgamated into reality for what was happening wherever, and we in the audience were never in doubt as to where the story had moved on to, facilitated no end by the seemingly never ending supply of changing accents and speech patterns of the cast, who also ably demonstrated their gold medals in scene changing. Hannay’s apartment, the foyer and bedroom of a Scottish hotel, the box in the theatre etc., etc., were suitably suggested and portable doors and window frames have a whole new world of meaning when held in varying ways from inside or outside by actors. Your production was full of such ingenuity – some obviously suggested by the script, but I suspect much of it down to Simon, your director and yourselves.
Nicholas Eccles played Richard Hannay, the hero, newly returned from Rhodesia to London to start a new life. He was on and off throughout because it is the story of the adventures he has in trying to solve the mystery of the Thirty-nine steps while trying to escape from the charge of murder, of which he is innocent, hanging over him. His adventures take him to Scotland and he becomes involved with a group of eccentric, dangerous, hostile or friendly characters before he solves the problem and Britain is no longer in danger. Nick was the ideal, calm, upper class, resolute, decisive, Boys Own Briton. Good in a crisis, pipe in mouth, he played the hero with charm, courage and equanimity. Forced into supreme physical feats which he dealt with efficiently he showed old world courtesy and grace with his female associates, whether friend or foe. His characterisation was so typical of its time, he made us feel proud to be British. Well done. A fine performance. And all before breakfast.
Esme Mather showed us the different females involved in the story and showed each to be convincing in their loyalties. The roles needed an experienced actress because of their vastly different life styles to be portrayed and Esme was spot on with each. Seductive, alluring, naive, genuine or exciting, she was at home whether in the remoteness of a crofter’s cottage in the far reaches of Scotland or the sophisticated nether world of London. She coped with all the different dialects, innuendoes and sexual posturing as if to the manner born and how she maintained that death position in Hannay’s flat was a miracle in itself as was how Nick managed to extricate himself from under her. She didn’t move a muscle. Well played.
Andy Chase and Mike Jones are described as Clowns 1 and 2 in the programme. These characters must share the world record for the highest number of character and costume changes ever required in a theatrical production. They were constantly changing costume for each role, sometimes twice on the same page. It is a wonder just how these two coped with everything thrown at them. The different accents, roles, situations, costume changing required throughout is virtually impossible to describe, so what it must have taken to perform must be left to the imagination. There was choreography of a sort, laugh lines to punch across and a mass of dialogue to memorise. They were quite hilarious and the disparity in size and shape must have helped in that area. Their individuality shone through and their unfailing ability to remember the order of everything a subject of our imagination. Their performances were object lessons in team work for us all. Well played indeed. As Shakespeare wrote “…one man in his time plays many parts …”
In plays such as this one and indeed in farce generally, all have to play as a team – there are no individual stars. Your play was Richard Hannay’s story, but in telling and living it, Nick needed every individual character in it, to support and to play to, with, off and against, as indeed did everyone else with him. Apart from all the hilarity, invention, creation, technique, skill and sheer hard work which gave much pleasure to your audience, my thoughts on the drive home included the high standard you had all set in your commendable example of how to play as a team.
Simon Griffiths was your director and his vast experience and ability shone out of his production, which was full of ingenuity. I like to visualise a picture of him organizing, suggesting, cajoling, praising, worrying, sympathizing when it didn’t go right the first thirteen times but cheering when it did the fourteenth, and finally applauding. He has earned our applause by his version of this play which was full of his ideas and dedication. Come to think of it, you all deserved our applause – all connected in any way. Well done!
Many thanks for your warm welcome. Happy play making.