Tag Archives: Patrick Barlow

Buchan the Trend

THE 39 STEPS

New Vic Theatre, Tuesday 19th March, 2019

 

I have seen several productions of Patrick Barlow’s rip-roaring adaptation of the Alfred Hitchcock film version of John Buchan’s classic adventure novel, but I approach the New Vic’s crack at it with relish, knowing I am in safe hands with director Theresa Heskins and a cast which includes Michael Hugo.

Being in-the-round, the production has a fresh feel from the get-go.  On the floor, a disrupted circle of letters and symbols keeps the espionage aspect of the story at the forefront, but for the most part the stage is a blank canvas on which the story is played out, with the cast of four wheeling on what they need – invariably with speed, efficiency, and choreographed ‘business’.   The piece begins with a lot of frenetic running around, an overture, which barely lets up pace until the final bows.

One of the things that sets this production apart from all the others is the use of original music.  Where others have used themes from Hitchcock films and other pieces from the period, Heskins brings in genius composer James Atherton to score the action.  Atherton’s vibrant music is cinematic, infused with 1930s jazz, and is tailored to point up moods and moments of action, in tandem with Alex Day’s impressive sound design, which has effects to flesh out mimed actions, invisible doors and so forth.

As depressed but gung-ho amateur adventurer Richard Hannay, Isaac Stanmore is suave and silly in equal measure, throwing himself around with grace and the agility of a cartoon character.  Stanmore is matinee-idol charming and is immensely appealing.

But then, so is everyone else.  Rebecca Brewer delivers the three female roles of the piece: fearsome femme fatale Annabella Schmidt, impressionable crofter’s wife Margaret, and hapless heroine Pamela – and it’s more than a change of wig that differentiates the characters.  Brewer’s comic timing is exquisite, perfectly parodying the melodramatic acting styles of old films.

Gareth Cassidy is spectacularly good as a ‘Clown’ – giving us one broad characterisation after another (sometimes within split seconds) but it’s the details (the turn of a head, the way a character takes a step) that bring us delight.  Cassidy is an excellent foil for the mighty Michael Hugo, and they form a double-act of breath-taking skill and versatility.  The Scottish couple who run an inn, seeing off a couple of bad guys (also played by Cassidy and Hugo) is almost miraculous in its execution.

There is so much to relish here: the sequence in and on the train, for example, the political rally Hannay stumbles into, the Mr Memory routine at the Palladium… Heskins’s love of physical comedy is unleashed and, of course, she includes her trademark throwing-of-papers and long-distance-combat (I suspect there would be riots if she didn’t), pulling out all the stops to make this traditionally end-on piece a good fit for an arena setting.  For the most part, it works brilliantly; there are very few bits that don’t come off (Hannay peering through the window at two men beneath a lamp-post) because of distance and sightlines – but the next gag is always only a few seconds away and the overall standard is so high, the piece is an exhilarating display.

This is a piece of theatre that exploits its theatricality and subverts it.  The upshot is a laugh-out-loud, hilarious and admirable oasis of fun in these uncertain times where the right-wing plots are not as covert as that defeated by Hannay, and a fresh take on a modern comedy classic.

39 steps

In a rare moment of stillness, Isaac Stanmore and Rebecca Brewer take in a show (Photo: Andrew Billington)


Going off the Handel

THE MESSIAH

The REP, Birmingham, Monday 22nd October, 2018

 

Writer Patrick Barlow is the genius behind the hilarious hit adaptation of The 39 Steps, a show that never fails to tickle the funny bone.   Here, his first play from 1983, gets a wash-and-brush-up in a perky revival – Barlow also directs, bringing in up-to-date topical references.  The nature of his early work as the driving force of the ‘National Theatre of Brent’ is very much in evidence, as a pair of inept but well-meaning actors attempt to stage the biggest of stories: the birth of Jesus, using little more than a chair or two to stand on and the odd bit of costume to run around in.

Hugh Dennis is Maurice Rose – the Barlow figure of the two – whose grandiose ideas outstrip his capabilities.  It’s not much of a stretch for Dennis, a widely recognised face from TV comedy, but this is the kind of thing at which he excels.  The delivery and timing are impeccable.  He is supported by John Marquez as Ronald Bream, an enthusiastic but clueless sidekick, who gets most of the laughs up against Dennis’s straight man.  The pair is augmented by the addition of a special guest, Mrs Leonara Fflyte, a snooty opera singer who punctuates the story with unaccompanied singing.  I would find it funnier if she were a Florence Foster Jenkins figure rather than the pitch-perfect Lesley Garrett – then, later, when the team actually achieves a moment of beauty, the singing of ‘Silent Night’ would come as a powerful surprise… But that’s just me.

Garrett proves herself a good sport, donning robes and headwear and a comedy beard and tearing around the stage as one of the Three Wise Men, pursuing the Star, and, of course, the singing is sublime – quite at odds with the ridiculousness of the action.

Barlow’s script is peppered with malapropisms, anachronisms and word play – it’s the kind of thing Radio Four churns out.  There is even a Morecambe & Wise moment, as Dennis and Marquez back up Garrett, in much the same way that Eric & Ernie would ‘support’ Shirley Bassey.  It’s funny stuff but there is nothing we haven’t seen before and in the genre of theatre-done-badly, the pinnacle has been attained by The Play That Goes Wrong.  This is a smaller-scale affair that lacks big surprises.

For all that, it’s an amusing piece, quintessentially English in its humour, that mocks the storytelling rather than the story (the religious will not be offended).  Your ribs will be tickled but you won’t split your sides.

Hugh Dennis as Maurice Rose & John Marquez as Ronald Bream_credit Robert Day (4)

Not the Messiah, they’re two very silly men. Hugh Dennis and John Marquez (Photo: Robert Day)

 

 


Steps in the right direction

THE 39 STEPS

Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Saturday 8th September, 2018

 

Of all the incarnations of John Buchan’s novel of 1915, Patrick Barlow’s stage adaptation is my favourite – perhaps it’s because the world has moved on and the stiff-upper-lip hero is hard to take seriously anymore.  I have lost count of the number of productions I have seen yet it is still with excitement that I approach this one in the Crescent’s Ron Barber studio.

The space is dominated by Keith Harris’s set, which consists mainly of a mini proscenium arch with curtain and a rostrum.  This comes in useful for scenes set in the London Palladium and later in a Scottish hall, but most of the time it pushes the action downstage and so close to the audience it feels cramped.  The rest of the scenery is conjured from judicious use of some simple settle-type benches, which create an armchair, a box at the theatre, a bed and so on as the story demands.  There is a portable window, which is used for laughs, but no portable door – a missed opportunity, there.

The cast of four is very strong.  Leading is a dapper David Baldwin as urbane twit and action figure, Richard Hannay.  He is pitch perfect and, in this intimate space, you can see Hannay’s cogs working behind his eyes.  As his three leading ladies, Annabella Schmidt, Pamela, and Margaret, Molly Wood is also strong – her ‘Cherman’ accent is particularly good, but she needs to ensure that Pamela’s best line (I’m not surprised you’re an orphan) is not lost among her wracking sobs.

Everyone else is played by a couple of ‘Clowns’, both of whom prove their versatility.  Katie Goldhawk’s Scottish characters come across especially well, while Niall Higgins’s nefarious Professor and his wacky Scottish landlady are hilarious.

Director Sallyanne Scotton Mounga elicits wonderful characterisations across the board, and her staging gives rise to plenty of titters.  In her hands, Barlow’s script is consistently amusing but I get the feeling we are being short-changed when it comes to the play’s set pieces: the escape from the train, for example.  Much fun is had with the party behind the closed-door bit, but the wild wind outside Margaret’s cottage is another opportunity overlooked.  The sound effect is there, courtesy of Roger Cunningham, but it doesn’t affect the action.  More could be made of the actors’ physicality to get locations across.  Further steps could be taken.

There is plenty to enjoy here, but I come away thinking the creative envelope could be pushed a little further to give us moments of inventiveness to dazzle and delight and take our breath away.

39 steps crescent

Strangers on a train: Katie Goldhawk, Niall Higgins and a bemused David Baldwin (Photo: Graeme Braidwood)

 

 


Steps to Heaven

THE 39 STEPS

Bear Pit Theatre, Friday 11th May, 2018

 

Patrick Barlow’s affectionate spoof draws more from the Hitchcock film version than the John Buchan original novel – and indeed, his script is peppered with direct nods to Hitchcock’s filmography for those in the know.  Director Nicky Cox’s ambitious production is an excellent fit for the Bear Pit’s intimate space; her set design maximises the performance area with a raised level, including judicious use of a screen for projections that both identify the location and bridge the scenes of on-stage action.  Cox works her cast of just four hard; this is a show where the hand of the director is clearly visible, especially during inventive moments like a chase on the roof of a train, and an aeroplane conjured up from a propeller and a ladder.  Also clearly in evidence is the wit of the writer: Barlow’s wordplay spoofs the stilted dialogue with the addition of extra-silliness.

But, of course, it is the actors who draw our admiration the most readily.  Tony Homer is perfectly cast as the protagonist Richard Hannay, tall, slender, his old-fashioned matinee idol looks enhanced by his neat moustache.  Homer proves adept at facial expressions, especially the world-weariness and the self-congratulatory wink, and he uses his pipe to great effect.  I would say he could emphasise Hannay’s R.P. and his stuffy manner to make the most of the character’s ridiculousness, but that’s a quibble, and I don’t wish to detract from his wildly enjoyable portrayal.

Carol Roache reappears as Hannay’s love interests, from a German femme fatale (What is German for femme fatale?) to a crofter’s wife and Pamela, a terribly English young woman who finds herself handcuffed to our hero to great comic effect.  Roache pitches each role perfectly: larger-than-life but never going over-the-top.  That indulgence is permitted to the remaining two cast members, Natalie Danks-Smith and Roger Ganner, who play (tirelessly, it seems) everyone else.  This versatile pair undergo the quickest of quick changes, their characterisations becoming broader and broader, in some breathtakingly silly moments.  Danks-Smith is hilarious as a crofter and the landlady of a hotel; while Ganner excels as the evil professor and the twitchy hotel landlord, to name but four of their many roles.

There are a few first night glitches: a wayward moustache and a runaway pen – but the cast handle these mishaps with aplomb, and it all adds to the fun.  A couple of times, the pace could be quicker – especially during a couple of scene changes – but I’m sure things will sharpen up as the show’s run gets into its stride.

All in all, this is comedy heaven, an excellent opportunity to exercise your laughing muscles for a couple of hours and, generally, the moments when we’re not laughing are times when we’re just marvelling at the brilliance of it all.

tony as hannay

Jolly good show! Tony Homer as Richard Hannay

 


39 Steps to Heaven

THE 39 STEPS

The REP, Birmingham, Tuesday 1st March, 2016

 

Having only recently ended its West End run of almost a decade, one of my favourite shows comes to town for a week in this exuberant touring production; I am delighted to have the chance to see it again and be tickled by its silliness and comic invention.

This is a show that celebrates theatricality – it wallows in it, in fact, archly satirising its own artificiality while at the same time making us marvel at the skills and cleverness involved to pull off its tricks and stunts. The script is by Patrick Barlow, adapted from an original concept by Simon Corble and Nobby Dimon (I believe I saw the show’s first incarnation many moons ago) but the spark that generated the show is the John Buchan spy thriller as distilled through the cinematic eye of Alfred Hitchcock.  (The show is peppered with references to Hitch’s films, for added laffs).

But you don’t need to know all that in order to enjoy yourself. This is quite simply one of the funniest shows it has ever been my pleasure to witness and, I’m pleased to say, its ability to amuse does not diminish with repeated viewings. The inventiveness of director Maria Aitken is still admirable – the audience gasps at the cheeky breaking of the fourth wall, and the speed at which the ideas keep coming. Part of the enjoyment comes from seeing how the effects are pulled off; another part is appreciation of the performers. The success of each flash of brilliance is dependent on the skill and unflagging energy of the cast of four, a versatile quartet whose verve and comic timing keep the show running like well-oiled, overwound clockwork.

Olivia Greene plays three of the female roles, ranging from a Germanic femme fatale, to a lonely Scottish farmer’s wife, and the platinum blonde love interest Pamela. If anyone says women can’t be funny they have never seen this show (or crawled out from under their rock).

Andrew Hodges and Rob Witcomb work devilishly hard as Man 1 and Man 2 – providing all the other characters, sometimes at the switch of a hat (miraculously, no hats are dropped during the high-speed changes). As a double act or working singly, this pair are breath-takingly good. Broad characterisations, quick changes, vocal dexterity and accomplished physical comedy, these two have them all. In spades. And so does Greene. And so does the man of the match, our hero Richard Hannay – I squealed in excitement to learn that Richard Ede has returned to the role I think he was born to play. Tall and dashing (literally, for the most part) Ede consolidates his status in my view as the funniest man in British theatre. Hardly ever off, Ede hurtles around the stage, jumping from train roof, falling from railway bridge, climbing a cliff face, or just pelting through the Scottish countryside. You can’t take your eyes off him in case you miss a reaction. Utterly charming and relentlessly hilarious, Ede is supported by an equally talented cast – every cog in the clockwork relies on others in order to do its job – and a production that is unerringly laugh-out-loud funny.

An unadulterated joy.

Dan Tsantilis 39 steps

Not to be mist! Olivia Greene and Richard Ede (Photo: Dan Tsantilis)

 


The Pursuit of Silliness

The 39 Steps

Festival Theatre, Malvern, Monday 17th June 2013

Now look here, you chaps: there’s a bally good show doing the rounds at the moment and you could do worse than go and see it. You might be familiar with the original book written by a cove by the name of John Buchan, and you’ll certainly be aware of at least one of the cinematic adaptations, each of which has very little in common with any other.  That’s all by the by.

The story begins with all-round good egg Richard Hannay, feeling a bit out of sorts, don’t you know. It is not long however before he finds himself immersed in a world of espionage and intrigue and, not forgetting, murder, when he encounters a German femme fatale.   Wanted for her murder, Hannay flees north of the border.  The only way he can clear his name, dash it all, is to expose a spy ring and solve the mystery of the thirty-nine steps.

What sets Patrick Barlow’s adaptation apart from (and above) the rest is the manner of its telling.  A hard-working cast of four expend a level of energy that approaches Olympiad proportions to populate the story with dozens after dozens of characters.  This can involve a lot of on-stage quick changes – Tony Bell and Gary Mackay are adept at this, swapping hats and accents without missing a beat.  Mackay also has a nice line in Scottish characters: his landlady is hilarious, and his speaker at a political meeting is astonishing – unheard of, quite literally.  Tony Bell gives us his bad guy (among many others) as the evil Professor.  This pair also give us policemen, newspaper sellers, henchmen, travelling salesmen, and various features of the Highlands landscape.  Charlotte Peters plays the more attractive female roles, including the German fraulein fatale and the romantic interest.  Like Mackay and Bell, Peters demonstrates a range of accents and, above all, a talent for physical comedy.

But the show belongs to Richard Ede as our dashing hero.  In a three-piece tweed suit, sometimes with an overcoat on top of that, he is a dynamo of energy, chucking himself around the stage to create some of the funniest physical comedy you will ever see.  His characterisation is pure charm; he is the affable matinee idol from British films, handsome with his pencil moustache, but above all he is very, very funny.  Of course a lot of the humour comes from Barlow’s clever script, which piles on the silliness in an absence of smut or cheap laughs, but it is Ede who is the driving force in bringing the show to life.

The show lays bare its theatricality.  Doors and windows are wheeled on and off as required.  A chase on the roof of a train is created simply with a couple of packing trunks and some ingenious phyicality. It’s all done for laughs.  Form has precedence over content.  The pursuit of Hannay is the pursuit of silliness.

But the content also bears looking at.  This oft-adapted tale of adventure is obviously an influence on James Bond, but on a more general level, it has the appeal of the great myths.  A hero goes on a quest, defeats evil, and is rewarded with what is important in life.  By rescuing the damsel, Hannay finds love, a wife and children.  We respond to his story subconsciously, perhaps.

Be that as it may, The 39 Steps is a consistently funny, knockabout show, where the thrills come from the theatrical inventiveness. Even though I’ve seen it a couple of times before, it remains fresh and refreshing, reinforcing my view that it is actors who should be at the heart of any performance, rather than technology.

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Now look here! Richard Ede as Richard Hannay