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Sidmouth Manor Pavilion Theatre - An Inspector Calls (with James Pellow)

Folks who know me very well often say, kindly I think, that I should get out more. I’m a grumpy old sod at the best of times and in the ...

Sunday, 22 July 2012

The 39 Steps - Dunstable Rep (Full Review)

One of the key characters in The 39 Steps, the Reps last celluloid to stage presentation, is the Memory Man. Mr Memory I think they called him, but my memory ain’t what it used to be. His was. Knew everything. Distance in miles between Winnipeg and Ontario or somewhere or other and the combined weight of Henry V111’s children. Oh all right he wasn’t asked these things, but he was asked lots of others. Am I right Sir? he engagingly asked. Richard Hannay, pennies falling into place, revisited his theatre show and asked him about the Thirty Nine Steps. Our Mr Memory regurgitated Hitchcock’s Macguffin, google it, and got shot for his troubles. He died beautifully, a complex formula revealed, and a plaintive ‘Am I right Sir?’ echoed around the theatre. There was not a dry eye in the house. Probably because they had been laughing so much. Buchan’s book is pleasurable nonsense, Hitchcock’s film with the unsurpassable Robert Donat as the hapless hero Hannay is equal to it, and Patrick Barlow’s zany interpretation releases the underlying comedy in imaginative style. I reckon Hitchcock, mischievously handcuffing a 1930’s heroine to the beleaguered fugitive, would have approved. If you are chasing a Macguffin, make it fun.
I reckon the Rep could have achieved that if they had just wheeled out their classy actors and amplified the script. These four were good enough to bring it to bizarre life from a rehearsed reading. But add in some basic staging and a few costumes and hats and chairs and you have a sure fire winner to end the season. I went on the first night due to holiday commitments and the pleasures of the Cotswolds, Chipping Campden, may have blurred my Mr Memory expertise. But I remember that I laughed a lot, I remember that I was impressed by the performances, I remember that the staging was occasionally clumsy and I would have preferred the elimination of assisting stage hands, and I remember, critical sod that I am, that the sparkling narrative had  a few dips. But most of all I remembered four excellent portrayals. John O’Leary’s nicely judged Hannay, an innocent involved in uncontrollable events, Kelley Sarson’s supremely accomplished feminine interests, and Joe Butcher’s and Matt Flitton’s bewildering inventive characterisations. Director Bekka Prideaux was blessed with this lot. You forgave the dips because you just knew that more fun was to follow. Am I right Sir?
It would have been interesting to go back on the last night. Would the sharpening of line delivery enhance the production or would the director and actors obvious love for their theatrical vehicle fatally flaw it? I doubt the latter. First night gremlins were dismissed with astonishing ease and humour, suggesting that this was a team firmly in control. That was clear throughout an evening which thoroughly entertained. They hit the heights with an hilarious train ride, switching hats in profusion, and an equally bewildering hotel booking in the remote highlands. Hannay and his handcuffed girl played the bedroom scene with sexual aplomb and Mr Butcher and Mr Flitton milked every moment of the strange proprietors. I almost wet myself, it’s my age, at a weird and muffled phone call by Mr Butcher but I cannot for the life of me remember why. This Thirty Nine Steps was a bit like that. Mr O’Leary and Miss Sarson gave the piece a realistic central focus and the other actor boys played all the peripheral characters, including two hilarious squawking hawks to suggest Scottish desolation, and they worked or failed on the machine gun principle. You can’t always hit the target but when they did it was all excellent first night fun.

Fred Rayment splashed in lots of effects, mood music underlined the action in the expected style, and the whole lot was a feet warming giggle. It ain’t Ibsen, although we had a hint with the removal of our heroine’s stockings by the handcuffed Hannay, but it was a jolly evening. You expect that in the July slot. End the season on a laugh is the Rep’s motto. And Bekka Prideaux and her magnificent cast did that for me in spades. When you like something you forgive its faults. And I liked this. Four bloody good actors chasing the Macguffin in madcap style. Death and glory and a tongue firmly fixed in Mr Hannay’s cheek. Hitchcock with comic knobs. Am I right Sir?
Roy Hall

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