This is the first time that I have been to this delightful fringe theatre above the Gatehouse in Highgate, and I must begin by saying what a treasure it is! For this production it was configured as a thrust stage, providing approximately 120 seats on three sides with a good acting space and clear sightlines. The nature of the production required the use of all available space but there was little that was not visible during the performance. Intimate, yet comfortable (providing better leg room than I have encountered in many theatres that are considerably bigger), it provided a fabulous space to house this production.
The 39 Steps is a comedy adaptation of the original 1915 novel by John Buchan. Set in the build-up to World War 1, it follows the antics of Richard Hannay who is involuntarily involved in a spy caper that takes him from London to Scotland and back again, trying to prevent important secrets being taken out of the country that could harm the security of the nation. Throughout his travels, he engages with a whole host of characters, from the stereotypical femme fatale to bungling cops, foreign spies, Scottish hoteliers and a variety of others – all played by a cast of four.
This is physical theatre in the same mould as the Reduced Shakespeare Company where the majority of the cast are playing multiple roles with a stripped back set and quick character and costume changes. The last production that I saw that followed this format was a production of the Peepolykus adaptation of The Hound of the Baskervilles and I was anticipating a similar, frantic (sometimes borderline manic) couple of hours of entertainment – I was nearly right.
This was advertised as an amateur production, although there was a good splash of professional training amongst the four actors on stage. Adam Moulder (who is on stage pretty much throughout) took the lead role of Richard Hannay. His performance was polished and he maintained his character superbly throughout. His occasional asides to the audience were perfectly timed and delivered, accompanied by some facial expressions that would challenge Lee Evans. Moulder’s various love interests were brilliantly portrayed by Sophie Mackenzie who, accompanied by an assortment of wigs, was able to portray clearly distinct characters throughout. Whilst she was, much of the time, the “straight man” to the comedy going on around her, when she had the opportunity within the script to push her comedic side, it was well executed.
The remaining characters (and there are lots of them) were portrayed by the two “clowns”. Both Grimson and Ward delivered excellent performances. The stand out characters, in my view, were the two Scottish hoteliers and the elderly Scottish political activists – with the latter, you knew what was coming but it was so well executed that I was laughing nonetheless. Occasionally, accents went awry – but that is not wholly surprising when you are turning over so many characters.
The set was simple yet effective – using props and occasional set pieces to convey the myriad of different locations required in the script. Some rear projection added a backdrop at times; I am not sure that this was wholly necessary, but it didn’t detract from what was happening on stage. I really liked the newspapers that make repeated appearances throughout the production – a really nice touch! The technical aspects of the production were relatively simple but they did their job. There were some shadowing issues in some of the scenes – I don’t know whether this was lighting being too restrictive or actors moving outside the space they should have been occupying.
So, what of the production, directed by Rob Ellis, overall? There were some lovely moments (I particularly enjoyed the entrance to the professor’s home with the moving doors) but I did feel that, at times, the production was a little pedestrian. Whilst I fully appreciate that there are numerous costume changes to be executed and locations to be created, there were times when I felt that the pace of the production slowed significantly between scenes. Also, whilst there were some great moments of physical theatre (particularly the “train chase and the handcuff scene,” which were both excellently executed), I felt that there was more opportunity in the script to be even more physical – giving the opportunity to the clowns to do more clowning.
Overall, this was a good production and is well worth going to see. I enjoyed the two hours and left with a smile on my face; I just feel that it could have been even more.
Review by Paul Wilson
Murder, intrigue, suspense. Planes, trains, automobiles. 139 characters. 4 actors!
When Richard Hannay is accused of a crime he didn’t commit, he finds himself pursued by German spies, entangled with femmes fatales and caught up in an elaborate plot with the fate of the country at his feet!
Patrick Barlow’s comic adaptation of The 39 Steps lovingly recreates Alfred Hitchcock’s 1935 thriller for the stage, its tongue stuck firmly in its cheek. Having closed at the Criterion Theatre in 2015, after nine years, it is the fifth longest-running play in West End history, picking up the Olivier Award for Best New Comedy along the way.
Richard Hannay: Adam Moulder
Annabella Schmidt/Margaret/Pamela: Sophie Mackenzie
Clowns: Emily Grimson, Dom Ward
Production Team Director: Rob Ellis
Set Design: Max Batty
Costume Design: Sheila Burbidge and Peter Westbury
Lighting Design: Stephen Ley
Sound Design: Colin Guthrie
Stage Manager: Sarah Ambrose
Assistant Director: Charlie Bailey
Assistant Stage Manager: Ruth Sanderson
Lighting Operator: Evie Ley
Sound Operator: Kaushal Ginige
Set Construction and Get-in: Keith Syrett, Jude Chalk, Phillip Ley, Max Batty, John McSpadyen
The Tower Theatre Company Presents
The 39 Steps
Adapted by Patrick Barlow
from an original concept by
Simon Corble and Nobby Dimon
Directed by Rob Ellis
Evenings at 7.30pm
Wednesday 4 to Saturday 7 October
Tuesday 10 to Saturday 14 October
Matinées at 3.00pm
Saturday 7 and Saturday 14 October
The Tower Theatre performing Upstairs at the Gatehouse, Highgate