DramaNorth East & YorkshireReview

The 39 Steps – Harrogate Theatre

Writer: Patrick Barlow

From an original concept by Simon Corble and Nobby Dimon

Director: Chris Jordan

Designer: Julie Godfrey

Reviewer: Ron Simpson

In 1995 Simon Corble and Nobby Dimon of the small-scale theatre group, North Country Theatre, came up with a unique take on the classic adventure tale, The 39 Steps.  Audiences in North Yorkshire, very often in village halls, were the first to witness the inspired idea that The 39 Steps could be huge fun if performed by four actors with no scenery as such, improvising props and settings. A few years later Patrick Barlow of the National Theatre of Brent kept the original format and re-wrote the script – and a remarkable theatrical success was born.

The 39 Steps has returned to North Yorkshire twice in the last year or so, each production unique in its own way. The Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough staged the first in-the-round production – and it worked – and now Harrogate Theatre has been bold enough to risk a play of intricate simplicity and demanding timing as the last production of its weekly rep season – and it works, too.

The 39 Steps has undergone many different story-lines from John Buchan’s original novel in various film versions – the nature of the eponymous steps has changed over and over again – but the Patrick Barlow script is very much based on the 1935 Alfred Hitchcock film. Its theatrical opening and conclusion (Mister Memory at the London Palladium) offer a great opportunity for scenes ranging through the stage boxes and the auditorium – an opportunity gleefully taken by Harrogate Theatre. Much of the fun is therefore based on how four actors without technical resources can cope with a pursuit on a train roof crossing the Forth Bridge or a man and woman fleeing across the heather handcuffed to each other – or even scenes with five, six or seven characters.

Things begin well enough, with Richard Hannay’s visit to the theatre, the shot in the middle of Mister Memory’s act and Annabella Schmidt’s murder in Hannay’s flat, but it’s all a bit too dramatic. For instance, the music tends to overpower and Anna Clarke as Annabella the secret agent is melodramatic to a fault, with an impenetrable accent. As Act 1 goes on its amiable way, the train effects are only modestly ingenious.

However, as Chris Jordan’s production progresses, things fall into place. The real heroes are the two spare actors, here designated Clown 1 and Clown 2, who have to fill all the parts, many of them excruciatingly Scottish, around Hannay and the women in his life. Their hapless “Well, we’d better find a way of doing this” manner gradually establishes itself, with such gems as Philip Stewart’s conversations with himself and Ross Waiton’s wonderful impersonation of all the obstacles in Hannay’s way on the bleak Scottish moors. A word, too, for the puppet sequence, with Hannay beset by police, assorted animals and Alfred Hitchcock – incidentally, spotting the names of Hitchcock films in the script is one of Barlow’s little games.

The splendidly versatile Waiton is the best example of the value of the Harrogate Rep season, turning out for his third part in three weeks (or, rather, about fifteen parts). Oliver Mellor and Anna Clarke also offer a spirited contrast to their performances in On the Piste, he a neat mixture of silly ass and stiff upper lip as Hannay, she surprisingly moving as the crofter’s wife and perfectly channelling her secret Madeleine Carroll as well as cropping up as a dancing policeman.

Runs until September 14, 2019 | Image: Contributed 

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  1. Our first visit to Harrogate – came to see Harlow Carr gardens, and stumbled on the theatre on the way home just before curtain-up. What a superbly slick and riotous evening. Most theatre that we see is London-based: this was refreshingly better than a lot of it…. We’ll come back to Harrogate to see the gardens again; and we’ll time our visit to coincide with this excellent company’s next run.

  2. Also came as a group of 12 to see gardens and were delighted to spend Thursday 12th at the Theatre – wonderful performances – great fun! Thank you!

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