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.