The 39 Steps
The Maltings Theatre
Reviewed – 6th October 2020
“Adam Nichols’ direction delivers a well-oiled and well-crafted two hours, though the chaos is overplayed”
Having been at the forefront of the campaign to allow live open-air performance to re-start in the summer months – presenting a two-week long theatre festival – The Maltings is now back with an indoor, COVID-safe Autumn programme. The safety measures are well-thought out and implemented, from bubble-seating to an in-seat drinks service and a one-way system to the loos at the interval, and the delight of this socially-distanced capacity crowd at being back in the building was palpable. This was an audience which had really missed live performance, was thrilled to be back, and was determined to have a good time. The show garnered laughter and spontaneous applause aplenty throughout.
Patrick Barlow’s 2005 script follows on from the original four-person version by Simon Corble and Nobby Dimon ten years before, which is itself an adaptation of the 1935 screen version of John Buchan’s original 1915 spy novel. It’s a rollicking ride of a show, with three actors playing an enormous cast of characters – cops, villains, hoteliers, milkmen, paper boys – as well as the main roles, and one actor playing Richard Hannay, at the centre of all the mayhem. There are costume changes galore, and much ingenious manipulation of on-stage furniture and props to create cars, trains, aeroplanes, and even the Forth Bridge at one point, which is all tightly choreographed and managed with great skill by the performers. Simon Nicholas and Flora Squires, in particular, form a hugely skilful and energetic comedy team as the clowns who, between them, take on the majority of the minor roles and transformations.
James Douglas is terrific as the hapless Hannay, bumbling his way through this extraordinary tale, and Hannah Baker deals ably with the three larger female roles. Simon Nicholas’ chaotic-seeming set, resembling the prop store in a theatre, is a perfect and precise construction, with everything artfully poised to enable the smooth-running of this extremely business-heavy show. Adam Nichols’ direction delivers a well-oiled and well-crafted two hours, though the chaos is overplayed, and the breaking of the fourth wall wears a bit thin. The ‘things not quite working as they should’ gag is definitely overused, and the continual ironic ‘broad strokes’ approach to minor characterisation becomes wearisome and means that, despite a lot of manic stage action, the pace does drag at times.
One of the pleasures of the 1935 film adaptation is the contrast in tone between the extreme seriousness of the task at hand and the joyful silliness of our hero handcuffed to the protesting Pamela. By realising the entire story as a comedy caper, and not honouring the thriller element of the plot, much of the humour’s pleasure is lost. Just as the enlivening bubbles in a good Scotch and soda soften and prolong the complex flavours of a single malt, so the laughs help us to digest Buchan’s rather serious message about the perils of seductive fascism. All soda and no Scotch is simply criminal, as Richard Hannay would most certainly agree.
Reviewed by Rebecca Crankshaw
Photography by Pavel Gonevski
The 39 Steps
The Maltings Theatre until 10th October
The Maltings Open Air Festival
Reviewed – 15th August 2020
“the cast are masterful at multi-roling and eking out the comic potential”
Lockdown appears to be easing in many walks of life, but it is unfortunate that the theatre world, in particular, is still struggling to get back on its feet. The government announcement allowing indoor events is very welcome although there is still a fair bit of ground to cover. In the meantime, open-air theatre is stealing the spotlight, and a very fine example of this is the Maltings Open Air Theatre Festival, set in the unique Roman Theatre of Verulamium just on the edge of St Albans. As part of the festival, Shakespeare’s “Henry V” is running in rep throughout August.
Whilst our theatres are nursing their wounds from the battle against the pandemic, outdoor theatre has another foe, too, in the English weather; and “Henry V” opened just as the heavens did. But mercifully the downpours showed some restraint for the crucial ninety minutes and rain didn’t stop play: the show must go on, and the true spirit of the cast thrives, matching the trumpet calls that herald Shakespeare’s historical text.
“Henry V” is an ambitious play. It is difficult to represent the great battles of Harfleur and, more importantly, of Agincourt. It relies heavily on the collective imagination of the audience, and here it is aided too by the individual imagination of director, Matthew Parker. Embracing the current restrictions, Parker presents the play as a rehearsal for a school production. The teachers and students have gathered together in the summer holidays to rework their production of “Henry V” that was presumably curtailed earlier in the school year. They have to alter the staging to make it socially distant and safe. Costumes can only be touched by the actor wearing them and no-one can share a prop – each cast member assigned different coloured tape to enforce this. The action is interrupted whenever actors get too close to each other. It is a clever way if incorporating the regulations into the performance itself.
The cast brilliantly capture the atmosphere of the classroom in recess where familiarity and authority have license to flirt with one another. The flipside, however, is that one is drawn to these characters more than to the Shakespearian characters they are portraying, and Shakespeare’s text plays second fiddle. The complexities of the subject, and the contrasting views on patriotism and warfare, do get swept aside by the occasional over-projection and caricature. Nevertheless, the cast are masterful at multi-roling and eking out the comic potential. Felipe Pacheco and James Keningale stand out, playing seven or so characters between them; and Rachel Fenwick shines as the French King’s daughter, Katherine, especially during the iconic scene in which she attempts to improve her English.
But all in all, it is an ensemble piece that is refreshingly pacey and fizzes with energy. The electricity that seems to crackle form the stage is not just the early signs of the impending thunderstorm. The setting is stunning: an excavated Roman amphitheatre that is nearly two thousand years old. For over a millennia it was buried, but it lives to see the light of day. A fitting backdrop for one of the first productions to emerge since lockdown. The spirit of theatre cannot be dampened – by an invisible enemy nor by the English weather, and this feisty production of Henry V is testament to that spirit.
Reviewed by Jonathan Evans
Photography by Laura Harling
The Maltings Open Air Festival until 31st August
Last ten shows reviewed by Jonathan: