Saturday, 30 April 2016

"What are the 39 Steps?!"

Good day, everyone! Apologies for the month-long radio silence; once again time seems to have flown by, aided and abetted by many different things good and bad (among the good being another article for In Retrospect magazine, due out at the end of May!).

Another bit of good fun that I attended a few weeks ago was a performance of the long-running theatrical comedy version of the classic Hitchcock film The 39 Steps, which is currently on tour around the country and which was being put on at my local theatre, The Palace in Westcliff-on-sea.

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This charming 104-year-old theatre has been through its own share of ups and downs over the years and is perfectly suited to this kind of production - indeed the age and design of the place only added to the enjoyment, in my opinion.

Now I must have been the last chap in the country with an interest in vintage to have seen this play (since it's been on at The Criterion in Piccadilly Circus for 10 years) but, on the off-chance that I'm not and you have no idea what I'm going on about, The 39 Steps is based on the 1935 film adaptation of the John Buchan book of the same name, directed by Alfred Hitchcock and starring Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll.  Rewritten as a comedy, much of the amusement comes from the fact that all the characters - including the extras - are played by only 4 (yes, that's right, four!) actors.  This naturally means a lot of quick-change action, both in characters and sets, which only adds to the comedy.



A smaller, more intimate theatre certainly seems to benefit the production as well, with the cast making good use of the balconies and even though I was towards the back I still felt quite close to the action.  Although as I mentioned I have not been to the show's home at The Criterion Theatre it looks to be one of the smaller West End venues and I don't doubt that that has been one of the reasons for its success as it would probably lose something of its tightness on a bigger stage.

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That very tightness was in full display on the Saturday afternoon I went to see it, however.  Even though it was the penultimate performance of a seven-day run - and a matinée to boot - the actors all seemed full of pep and vigour and consequently their performances felt very fresh and accomplished.  Of course everything was slight exaggerated for comic effect but it never went too far and there was no whiff of ham to be found.  Richard Ede played the part of Richard Hannay very much in his own way - and successfully too - with the odd nod to Robert Donat and just the right level of humorous chappishness.

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The sets, such as they were, were also excellently done and again managed to capture the essence of the storyline without ever hampering the pace of it - in fact a lot of the time it was quite the opposite as the removal of props and setpieces was often integrated into the action with hilarious results!  Likewise the occasions that required a quick change by one or more of the actors were accomplished with aplomb, very cleverly and funnily.

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Naturally one of the big attractions is the costumes and here again the show comes up trumps.  The three-piece suit Hannay was wearing in the performance I saw was even better than the one in these pictures - a wonderful oatmeal check that came very close to how I imagine Robert Donat's suit was in colour and style, topped off by a splendid pair of brown brogues.  It's nice for us chaps to have a bit of clothing envy now and then too, you know!

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The actress who played Annabella Smith/ Pamela has her own share of costumes too, of course - very close to those originally worn in the film I'm pleased to say - especially that famous double-pointed, bow-tie-fronted blue(?) and white dress.  Have a compare between the two, ladies, and tell me what you think!

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The whole thing builds up to a suitably climactic finish, with a healthy dose of silliness thrown in, and all in all it was a most enjoyable afternoon with the play fully living up to my expectations.  It stuck more or less completely to the plot of the 1935 film and was all the better for it.  I was pleased to note that some of the lines delivered verbatim from the original Hitchcock script got as many laughs as the action and the whole thing had the feel of a production that had been made with due reverence to the source but with a clever and witty rewrite that in some ways helped bring to the fore some of Hitchcock's more humorous touches in the film.

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And speaking of which, this post wouldn't be complete without a couple of stills of the hero - and heroine! - in that wonderful film which inspired the play.  In case you have never seen The 39 Steps ("what's the matter with you?!", I would ask) or just want to refresh your memory of it, thanks to the wonders of modern science it is currently available to view in its entirety on YouTube.  But of course, I expect you all to have it on DVD like any sensible cove. In fact I'm off to watch mine now and admire Robert Donat and his splendid houndstooth check suit.

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***The 39 Steps is continuing on tour until 2nd July 2016 and will be playing at these venues***

2 comments:

  1. The 39 Steps is one of my favourite books and back in the day when we first started dating I insisted Himself read it, especially as he lived in the next town to Broadstairs home of the real 39 steps!
    Thankfully he loved it and the film version so much so he took me to see it in London a couple of years ago. I can confirm The Criterion is the perfect tiny venue for the play but not so perfect for modern day long legs, we were positively wedged into our seats all night!

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  2. Oh my they're actually coming to Cardiff!!!! I will swiftly be booking tickets, I've heard such good things. Thanks for the headsup! Xx

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