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39 Steps Chesil Theatre Winchester

REVIEW: 39 Steps – Chesil Theatre, 23 January 2016

Chesil Theatre had a well-deserved sell-out this week with their latest production, 39 Steps, adapted from John Buchan and Alfred Hitchcock’s classic by Patrick Barlow and directed by Flavia Bateson. Anyone old enough to remember listening to Dick Barton, Special Agent on the ‘wireless’ will be very familiar with the genre. Actually I’m not quite old enough, but the familiar theme tune, put to good use in this adaptation, is synonymous with the double-breasted, pencil-moustached, man-of-mystery stories that belong to the era before TV, reality programmes and video nasties.

John Buchan’s original novels were actually set pre-WW1 and pre-date the home radio era by some three decades. They featured true Brit Richard Hannay getting involved in all sorts of shenanigans in remote corners of England and Scotland, on moors and in steam trains in heroic efforts to protect military state secrets from foreign agents. Hitchcock’s 1935 film took Mr Hannay into the era between wars with new characters and more film/stage versions followed. Eventually, Patrick Barlow re-wrote the whole things as a tongue in cheek comedy spoof and Ms Bateson has used a talented team and some impressive technology to enhance the story even further.

With only a cast of four – the hero Richard Hannay plus three others playing numerous other parts from a milkman to cross-dressing guest house owner, an evil Professor, numerous spies, policemen and glamorous ladies (all ladies being played by the same person) – the story starts with the murder of one beautiful and mysterious lady in the London apartment of Hannay and the rest of the play is a rollicking romp across the UK as he goes on the run from the police and seen/unseen spies; he survives being shot at close range, falling from the Forth Bridge and numerous other unlikely antics, all slickly acted out by Alec Walters as the pencil moustached man of the moment.

Playing the part dead straight, as it should be of course, the laughs came thick and fast. Mr Walters was born for this era and his timing – not to mention the double breasted tweed suit – was perfect. Newcomer to Chesil Theatre, Julia Mantell, played the three (remarkably similar looking) glamorous ladies of the adventure with just the right mixture of slapstick and deadpan aloofness when necessary. One gets the feeling Chesil audiences will be seeing her again.

The two remaining cast, Charlie Seligman and John Wakeman, played all the other characters and extremely funny they were too, often poking fun at each other as they raced from one costume and character to another. ‘Costumes’ for these two, a little like their various accents, were deliberately token affairs and much fun was had in Keystone Cops-style chases across stage, flashing torches at the audience whilst doing double takes and circus falls galore.

A Wonderful Spoof and Huge Fun

David Woodward’s set was simple – in fact it comprised plain flats painted a very neutral grey to soak up the many and effective different lighting plots played on them, a few real props like tables and period telephones, and some stage blocks used to form various seats, beds and lecterns. 30-odd impressively hand drawn sketches by Ian Fraser were projected onto the back wall and set each of the 33 scenes beautifully whilst period frenetic music (including ‘Devil’s Gallop’ borrowed from Dick Barton), numerous sound effects of bagpipes, steam trains, aircraft and audience participation, all on cue and using a great deal of technical wizardry, completed the picture.

All in all, a wonderful spoof and huge fun. If I had one small criticism it was that, despite it not being a long show, the pace of the play, including scene changes, could have been a bit faster. In places it was a little too measured and needed speeding up to match the ‘Devil’s Gallop’. But Flavia Bateson proved her worth as a veteran director at Chesil once again and she and her team (special mention for sound and lighting man Tony Rogers) should be very proud of this technically tricky and challenging, chuckle-making romp.

For more information on Chesil Theatre shows: click here

David Cradduck

Image: Tony Rogers