Actually, it’s two-hour thriller-noir comedy that makes use of 5 actors playing over 100 roles with countless scene changes onstage. “Impossible,” you say. Quite the contrary!
Such was the magnanimity of The 39 Steps. Staging a play that inspired London theatre-goers almost a decade ago may have seemed a difficult task but, with Madeleine Inskeep (of beloved Blind Mirth fame) taking the helm as director, comedy was sure to appear en masse. Indeed, she – and producer Amanda Hollinger – certainly delivered.
Awaiting a packed audience, the Barron was initially empty (save for a permanent elevation at the back of the set). There were no props and no furniture – a sight which was soon to change. As the lights came up, the five-member cast came on to joyous applause and delivered a hearty bow before enthusiastically running around the stage. Clearly this served as a warning for the next two hours. If you weren’t there for fast-paced, erratic eccentricity, your only answer would be to escape.
The show then began as the stage drastically transformed into a plush West-End living room, one of multiple set changes that would appear throughout the show, others including a hotel reception, a train and a theatre. Richard Hannay (played expertly by Tom Giles on the night I went, and by Joe Viner during some other performances) sat gentlemanly in an armchair, ably delivering an introduction. From there, the story swiftly continued, introducing the titular intrigue of ‘The 39 Steps’. What is it? What does it, or perhaps they, want? Hannay becomes embroiled in a web of secrets that he must untangle, a task that takes him to Scotland and back – and the police are on his tail at every step. The flow of the plot was certainly not overwhelming but it most assuredly kept you on your toes.
Real credit must be given to the five actors who managed to keep on top of such a plot. Tom Giles worked wonders in the lead role, conveying all the gentlemanly mannerisms, thoroughly British one-liners and all of the physical comedy with zeal. His accompaniment, Hannah Raymond-Cox (in a role which was again double cast, played Jemima Tyssen Smith during alternate showings), made wonderful transitions between a German secret agent, a Scottish housewife, and a snooty businesswoman. But the sheer breadth of characters conveyed by the three clowns (Becca Schwarz, Adam Spencer and Scott Wilson) was stunning, with characters changing seamlessly even onstage.
Credit is also due to the tech team who, with the weird and wonderful sound effects and music, created a real-life cartoon in front of your eyes. The occasional glitches actually managed to blend in well with the comedy; it almost appeared natural. Especially in comedy, spontaneity can sometimes bring in the biggest laughs, which was certainly true on this occasion. Indeed, comedy came in a variety of forms: alternative, spoof, black, physical, wit, puns, and jokes that are so bad and so good you need to laugh. The wonderfully responsive crowd only added to the enthusiasm of the show. Several times the cast and crew were applauded mid-scene. The play ended on a high note, keeping the audience as cheery as when it all had begun.
Overall, Madeleine Inskeep, Amanda Hollinger, the cast, and the crew did a breath-taking job in bringing this production together. The quality of student theatre is ever improving within the University; it is pleasing to see how adventurous directors are becoming when proposing plays. After four shows in total, including a Saturday matinée, it’s clear that this show was a popular one. The wide assortment of comic elements, delivered exuberantly by a collection of talented actors, guaranteed the audience a sight of the cast at their happiest – as every comedy should.
Photo credit: Katie Brennan