What an absolutely spiffing evening at the theatre from a frightfully jolly cast of awfully talented actors in a terrifically thrilling adventure.
Well, I think you get a feel for the show from that, so no more stiff upper lip, 1930s English puns which abound in this feel-good piece of theatre that put a smile on my face from even before the performance began and stayed in place to the end.
This Black Rat Productions staging of the homage to Hitchock that was a big success in the West End and in the hands of director Richard Tunley and his small but perfectly performing crew the action-packed, laugh a minute romp raced along, clearly delighting the Blackwood audience.
It helps, but is certainly not essential, to have some knowledge of the John Buchanan and Hitchcock film, to not only recognise the elements that are imaginatively morphed into the practicalities of theatre, such as the iconic train journey, the motorbike dash and the wilds of the Scottish Highlands, but also the style and feel of the film. There are also Hitchcock references along the way so see how many you spot (from names and images from his films to his trademark brief appearance). I only spotted three pretty obvious ones (which I won’t name as that will spoil the fun) but I am sure there were plenty more for those who are doyens on the master’s work.
As far as I remember the pace of this play follows that of the film and the rapid flow of action with rapid scenes as the narrative develops can get a little hard to keep up with the post intermission which, again, is where that familiarity with the source story helps.
With designs by Anna-Marie Hainsworth, sound by James Marsh and lighting by Robin Bainbridge and stage crew Claire Roberts and Jacqueline Sewry (who I think make a brief “accidental” appearance) this is a complicated piece of physical theatre with the props, pieces of set (from doors, windows, chairs etc) that are zoomed on and off stage, twirled around to create virtual spaces and also act as comedic devices.
It is, of course, the four actors who have to really “carry it off”. I am particularly pleased to see Gareth John Bale so strong and engaging as the hero of this pre Second World War espionage drama fresh from his monumental success in Torch Theatre’s Grav. As the rather somewhat louche, bored English gentleman who finds himself having to become something of a dashing swashbuckling hero he is splendid and the persona never slips. In the female roles (well the most elegant ones), Joanna Simpkins is also a delight, from the femme fatale Central European Annabella Schmidt who cannot pronounce V with witty consequences to Pamela, the main love interest for our bachelor hero.
However, the whole enterprise really rests on the characters with the cast names Clown 1 and Clown 2, played by Samuel Davies and Robert Hopkins, whose ability to manoeuvre through multiple roles, accents, wildly complicated character swapping, is the mainstay of much of the humour. There are some elements that are just excellent stand-alone skits from the railway carriage encounter with our hero where they play travelling salesmen, the handcuffed undressing to the zany proprietors of the hotel in the Highlands (a touch of Little Britain is lurking in there). Elements that are in the film are harnessed and exaggerated for their comedic effects and who knew flapping your clothes is so funny and effective in portraying a gale swept heath, the top of a fast-moving train and a racing motorbike!
It is difficult to carry off humour that does not rely on conventional jokes but rather is in the theatricality itself, such as the parody of small-scale theatre where props are clumsily slipped on to the stage, where sound effects go wrong (we have the well-travelled joke of the phone that rings at the wrong time for example but loads of fresh ones as well), characters getting slightly confused when they are supposed on stage which, of course, is all the funnier when you have the two players racing back and forward through multiple roles.
The use of a spoof newspaper from 1935 (which is an element in the play as well) as the programme for the show and the black and white trailer for the play showing in the foyer, add to the fun.
The work stands on its own feet but it would be interesting to see how the play works with younger people who may not be familiar with Hitchock and his film or even the genre. I once told a tour guide in Laos that a particular run down lodge in the back of beyond that we were staying in should be called Bates Motel. He took me seriously and I dread to think how many times he has innocently said that to other travelers and how many showers haven’t been taken.
Touring extensively through October and November.
For tour details: www.blackratproductions.co.uk/the-39-steps/
Check out the rather nifty trailer, old chap and chappess which also has tour dates.