THE 39 STEPS adapted by Patrick Barlow from a concept by Simon Corble and Nobby Dimon
King Alfred's Academy Theatre, Portway, Wantage, OX12 9BY
11-13 April 2019
For some reason, I failed to see Patrick Barlow's comic adaptation of John Buchan's adventure story during its nine-year run in the West End. So I was delighted when Amegos Theatre presented me with the chance to do so.
In this spoof tale of derring-do (inspired by Hitchcock's film version), all the characters are played by just five performers, sometimes with multiple roles in the same scene. Add to that Patrick Barlow's trademark removal of the 'fourth wall' (where the actors come briefly out of character to wrestle with recalcitrant props and so forth) and John Buchan's tale of action and intrigue becomes a very funny and inventive evening of entertainment. It was also very well cast.
Richard Hannay (Rob Thorpe) meets the mysterious Annabella Schmidt (Helen Harrison) at the theatre. They go back to his place where she is murdered by an unknown assailant. In the process, Hannay stumbles across a dastardly plot by a foreign power to smuggle vital military secrets out of Britain. Hannay's adventures in trying to foil the plot take him up to the Scottish Highlands and back to the London Palladium, before the spies and plotters are unmasked. In the meantime, he is abducted by enemy agents (Bill Jestico and Martin Waymark), evades capture by the police, who believe him to be a murderer, and has a romantic encounter with Pamela Edwards (Sam Winskill), who wants to turn him over to the authorities until, that is, she discovers the truth...
Director Lesley Phillips was fortunate in having five such talented performers. Rob Thorpe's rugged, unflappable, pipe-smoking Richard Hannay gave a well paced and understated performance. That's a good thing. It would have been easy to have hammed it up, to have succumbed to what Alan Ayckbourn calls 'waving from the train' at the audience. Rob showed the necessary discipline not to do so, presumably with the odd prod from the director.
Sam Winskill gave us a petulant, feisty and sometimes perplexed Pamela. Her double act with Rob had the right chemistry about it. The will-they-won't-they scene where Hannay and Pamela realise that they have fallen in love with each other was played pitch perfect.
Helen Harrison had only two major scenes. Based on what I saw, it is a pity that her talents were not used more in this production. Her first appearance as Annabella, the foreign beauty with a secret, was well judged without being over the top. Most remarkable was Helen's performance as a corpse, having to remain rigid, while draped across an armchair, for several minutes, until a very funny piece of business (I shan't spoil it) allowed her to relax. But Helen's best and funniest role was as Margaret the Scottish farmer's wife, who takes in Hannay while he is on the run from the police. She soon develops a schoolgirl-like crush on him. Her characterisation was beautifully drawn. There was some hilarious, frenetically energetic comic business with some suitcases, which had the audience in stiches. There was also a final, wistful look from the window, as Hannay runs off into the night, which was a masterful piece of comic timing, deservedly earning a laugh from the audience.
Last, but by no means least, were Bill Jestico and Martin Waymark who played all the rest. They were credited in the programme as clowns. They were, as cricket fans might say, good all-rounders. They probably had the most fun of all the cast, playing an array of male and female roles, from travelling salesmen to Scottish landlady to master villain to policemen. The double act worked very well in the manner of a musical hall act. The physical contrast between the two helped here: Bill the stockier of the pair; Martin wiry and angular.
As well as playing Hannay, Rob Thorpe also built the set. There was an inventive use of walk-in scenery on wheels. So one float was a box at the theatre. Trundled round 180º we were in Hannay's flat. Then there was the ingenious use of suitcases as pieces of furniture. My one criticism is that some of the scene changes in the first act could have been a little slicker.
Patrick Barlow's script has all the promise of a very successful show, as evidenced by its long run in the West End. However, this is no plug-and-play production. The key component was a cast with a feel for comic timing and flow. Lesley Phillips chose well and directed her actors into delivering an accomplished evening of escapist comedy.
About the Author
Mike Lord has been involved with amateur theatre for over twenty years, mainly as an actor but also, more recently, as a director.
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