The 39 Steps: Review by Neil Clarke

Review of “The 39 Steps” by John Buchan

As a child – wet Sunday afternoons were often spent watching old black and white films on the television.  I can still remember watching the 1935 film version of “The 39 Steps” on just such an occasion.  The film – starring Robert Donat, Madeline Carroll and featuring Flora Robson as “the Crofter’s Wife” – was a murder mystery full of suspense.

St James’s Players latest production retained the mystery of the story but brilliantly made it more enjoyable to modern audiences through the injection of clever and wry humour, breaking up the moments of suspense very effectively.

This was clearly a Team effort from everyone involved in the production, which was very tightly directed by Sarah Taylor.  The use of numerous sound and lighting effects added to the atmosphere and carried the pace along – but must have involved lots of hard work from the “backstage” team?  Also, it was “all hands on deck” from the Stage Management crew, who even made appearances on stage, by supporting the cast with numerous scene and prop changes.  This was supported by the cast themselves but this was all carried out so seamlessly and slickly it never distracted from the storytelling.

This production was so different from many standard plays that it must have involved a real leap of faith from the ensemble cast to embrace Sarah’s vision and it paid off superbly.

Each and every one of the cast gave excellent performances, capturing the period of the play completely and maintaining their characters in both serious and humorous moments.  It’s only fair to single out Ollie Bourached, however, for his performance in the lead role of Richard Hannay – since the part is huge and he rarely leaves the stage for more than a few moments throughout the whole performance.  His characterisation was perfect and delivered an effective balance between serious and funny.

Several members of the cast also played more than one character – which must have been very challenging – but they all slipped into their different roles seamlessly and carried on the performance at a cracking pace.  John Taylor and Paul Mason were outstanding in their ability to change roles, sometimes several times in the same scene.  That said, all members of the cast – regardless of the amount of time they were on stage – inhabited their characters very convincingly and added to the enjoyment of the production overall.  Twenty four different characters portrayed by ten actors in total!  Quite an achievement!

Nicola McDonald played both the femme fatal and the Crofter’s wife very convincingly.  Chris Feltham switched almost instantly between playing the local milkman and a senior police officer and Liz Gilroy-Scott was consistently convincing as the innocent heroine who finally ends up believing Hannay’s preposterous story.  Barbara Billington and Tony Kirkham were very effective as pillars of society who both had a hidden villainous agenda and Linda Dunn added a lovely touch of humour to her characterisation of hotel owner, Mrs McGarrigle.  Although not on stage in person, Peter Falconer’s contribution as the Radio Announcer and two airborne pilots was extremely effective in conveying the period of the piece.

This production confirmed the dedication, professionalism and obvious teamwork that is at the core of St James’s Players and I would encourage as many people as possible to support future productions as you will be sure of a great evening’s entertainment.  My thanks to all involved.

Neil Clarke