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The thirty-nine steps

Last night we went to the first play we have been to for quite some time.  In fact the last live show we saw was in Melbourne when we went to the musical Wicked, and that was a couple of years ago.  Yesterday we saw The 39 Steps put on at Dunedinís Fortune Theatre.  It is, of course, based on John Buchanís novel (we hadnít realised what an important governmental person he was) but adapted by Alfred Hitchcock and then again by Patrick Barlow.  I think thatís the way it was.

This was performed by four Dunedin actors and two stage managers who occasionally took on a brief part.  I think you would describe it mostly as a farce.  Buchanís novel was set around WW1 but this is closer to WWII for some reason.  The main actor played the part of Richard Hannay mostly fairly straight, but the other actors took various parts and often just used a cap or hat in view of the audience to change, usually for comic effect.

After the first half which was quite funny at times but certainly not rolling-in-the-aisles hilarious we wondered just why it was not quite working.  As my husband said they were trying hard enough.  I wondered if farce didnít really suit the stage or if we expected too much as an audience, or if the writing just wasnít humorous enough. We considered if the dated still-upper-lip spy-catching Englishman was just too dated.  However, it seemed to pick up in the second half Ė again did we just get used to the style or was it genuinely funnier or did the Ďlove interestí just add considerable interest?  Iím not sure why but it had turned into quite a satisfying piece of theatre by the end.

The action took us from a London flat where Hannay was bored with life till a beautiful exotic woman dies there.  (I thought of the woman you fancy in the Sherlock Holmes stories, Himadri.) From there it makes its way by Ďtrainí (ie a few boxes stuck on the stage with some smoke coming forth) up to Scotland where nefarious or cranky characters come and go.  

The comic versatility of the actors, in particular Danny Still, was quite amazing, and I wonder why such an actor has limited himself or been limited to just working in Dunedin, mostly it seems on childrenís theatre.  (He was a very short young man Ė jockey-like in stature.)

It is interesting but even in a comedy like this you still donít feel satisfied till you are certain he gets the girl.  There was minor doubt near the end but this was resolved.  

This review of it is more glowing than I have written.  It begins, ďThe 39 Steps is rollicking fun from start to finish, the delicious light-hearted silliness tossed off with zesty exuberance by a razzle-dazzling cast.Ē  

We tried to think what sort of things work best in the theatre and the one we remember as completely satisfying was The Crucible which we saw at the Crucible in Sheffield (giving it a head start anyway).  We saw an Alan Aykbourne (Sugar Daddies) at Oxford and it was good but didnít completely work, I think.  Roger Hallís comedies here are similar, and we have always loved any of these.  Donít like mono-actor plays much (my husband thinks they are just a way to save money by not paying actors).

Cheers, Caro.

Hi, Caro.  I'm afraid I don't agree with your view about "mono-actor productions" as I have seen some great one man (or one woman) shows.

Off the top of my head, I can remember enjoying Roy Dotrice in  John Aubrey's "Brief Lives" and Robbie Coltrane in a production about the life of Samuel Johnson.  

I was highly entertained  by Marika Rivera in "Marika's Cafe Theatre" and amused by Sheila Steafel in a one woman show of comedy sketches.  Then there is always Barry Humphries.

For me, one of the funniest things I have ever seen in the theatre was "Jeeves Takes Charge" at The Lyric, Hammersmith.  Edward Duke did a selection of the P.G. Wodehouse stories playing all the  myriad parts.  He was superb.  His death from Aids at the age of 40 was a great loss.

Perhaps one-man shows deserves a thread of its own.

Re: The thirty-nine steps

Caro wrote:
†(I thought of the woman you fancy in the Sherlock Holmes stories, Himadri.) .

Just for the record Ė (one has to be accurate in these matters!) Ė it was the actress (Gayle Hunnicutt) who played the character in the Jeremy Brett adaptation I fanciedÖ  Very Happy

Hello Sandra,
Delighted that you remember Roy Dotrice as John Aubrey in 'Brief Lives'. That was more than thirty-five years ago I think - unless he's revived it since. †I still remember the stage cluttered with antique odds and ends, and Dotrice as Aubrey emerging like a benign spider from among the clutter then chatting to us and gossiping about all sorts of things. †'When I was a boy - before the Civil Wars.....'
I remember it being extremely funny and touching. †Do you remember the wonderful story about Sir Walter Raleigh and his son? 'Box about twill come to my father anon.' †Dotrice trod a superbly judged line between comedy and pathos.
Talking of one-person shows - I also recall seeing Henry Fonda as Clarence Darrow, Sian Phillips as Marlene Dietrich, Garrison Keillor,Geoffry Buridge as Chatterton, and Freddie Jones as John Clare. And very very memorably Emlyn Williams as Charles Dickens.

If the production you saw was adapted by Patrick Barlow, Caro, he is an actor I'm aware of mainly through his "National Theatre of Brent" productions, which used to be with Jim Broadbent before he got too famous. I know of them through, first, radio, and then television. He takes some classic story such as the Nativity and then puts it on in a rather farcical way, as if done by an inept theatre company with pretensions, if not delusions of grandeur. He usually plays the overbearing lead actor, producer and director all in one, with his bullied and undermined sidekick (memorably Jim Broadbent in a scarf as the Virgin Mary) playing the lesser parts. As you say, props, sets and costumes are minimal, as is the cast. I wonder if "The 39 Steps" started out in this way?

I'm a great fan of Patrick Barlow as an actor, but I think my feelings about his adaptation of The 39 Steps mirror Caro's. The cast in the production I saw was very able (I can't remember names now, but one of them was Stephen Critchlow), but it didn't quite catch fire as it might have done. It's an adaptation of the Hitchcock version of the story rather than Buchan, and there are a number of Hitchcock references in the play. I think some of the love music from Vertigo was used.

Mikeharvey wrote:
And very very memorably Emlyn Williams as Charles Dickens.

Unless my memory is failing me I am sure I saw Williams performing Dickens in 1951 as a special thetrical event for the 1951 Exhibition in London. There was a revival of one-man shows after the success of the production

Hi, Mike.  I'm afraid that off the top of my head I can 't remember the Sir Walter Raleigh story  you mentioned.  Was it really 35 years ago?  I feel ancient.

I'm still slightly puzzled about why the drama based on Buchan's 39 Steps is played as a comic farce!

Interesting! I've just booked for the London production of 'The 39 Steps', mainly because my husband wants to see it. We're going in 2 weeks time, so I'll be able to report back then. (At first, my husband didn't want to go to see the production, because he feared it would be too much of a send-up, the kind of thing Michael Palin used to do with his 'Ripping Yarns' on TV. I, on the other hand, having never liked the book very much, won't mind if it is rather farcical---and I do like performances where a few actors play all the parts--I remember seeing 'Stones in his Pockets' a few years ago and loving it.)

Oh--Roy Dotrice in 'Brief Lives'---I saw that in the 60s! Brilliant. And, I belive, a few years ago, Dotrice (now in his 80s) did a revival of the show.

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