Review

The 39 Steps

A helpful programme insert explained that what we were about to see was not a straight adaptation of Buchan’s novel but a convoluted concoction that purloined extra derring-do adventures freely from not just one but three film versions. Quite possibly it was conveyed by a system of Chinese whispers to the intimate space of COPS Little Theatre.

The play was a re-writing by Patrick Barlow of an entertainment devised originally at the Theatre Royal Richmond to tour small venues in the north of England, and Barlow retained the original instructions for basic scenery. A large doorway up stage centre served as the main entrance for the actors and also for pouring frequent cascades of fog and mist over the stage as the action swung from London to Scotland and back. Locations were conveyed by rapidly shifting three or four assorted stage boxes thinly disguised as cabin trunks, and an occasional appearance of a leather armchair. The skill and variety of the lighting changes needed to create the different situations was a magnificent achievement by the Lighting Team, led by Ken Alford. The hard work of the whole technical team, Tony Mason’s sound and technical back up from Andrew Coyston and Dan Smith, played a major part in the production’s success.

All the parts were well cast. Patrick Sunners as Richard Hannay was a convincing thirty something jolly good sort from a decent school, first met enjoying the luxury of a club armchair and wondering how he might find something worthwhile to do with his life; a speculation soon shattered when back at his flat the beautiful and mysterious spy Annabella Schmidt ( Ros Barnes who, with the aid of a close curled hair style, made the perfect period belle ), bursts in and begs his help to prevent valuable scientific secrets being smuggled out of the country. The decision whether to help is taken for him when the following morning he discovers she has been murdered. (Fortunately M/s Barnes goes on to play Hannay’s associate on the run Margaret and also Pamela). The police immediately conclude that he is guilty, so with scant information as to what or where the thirty nine steps are, he heads off to Scotland to save the nation’s secrets. He is the only suspect being sought for the murder in his flat.

All the many and varied other parts were played by ‘Clown 1’, Chris Janes, and ‘Clown 2’ Mel Powell, the one slight and tense, the other more rotund and jovial physically complementing each other, adept at rapid costume and personality changes. Memorable as a Music Hall act, “Mr Memory” with Chris Janes straining to add detail upon detail to each item recalled and Mel Powell cheerfully joshing the audience as the compere, as two smoothly gliding waiters anticipating Hannay’s every need at his club, as rather lumbering policemen, or the threatening heavy and the sharp mean baddies on Hannay’s tail, often performing in mime, these were two actors perfectly in tune. So too were Patrick Sunners and Ros Barnes as Hannay and Margaret stumbling across the moors in handcuffs and suffering the embarrassments of strangers trying to share a room thus linked.

Thanks to the splendid team work from both actors and technical teams, travelling in a train compartment, hanging from the side of the train, being chased along the roofs of a swaying express (of stage platforms whisked into line), even leaping to hang precariously from a girder of the Forth Bridge, were convincingly evoked by the smoke, ingenious spot lighting and the sheer intensity of the actors’ conviction as Hannay battled catastrophe and his villainous opponents surged ever close on his heels.

The sheer pace, polish and attention to detail of the production. which brought it all together for this thoroughly entertaining night out, must be credited to the director, Jan Palmer Sayer Under her guidance, COPS have produced another sell-out and acting master class.

Reviewed by Richard Henderson. Photographs by Steve Beeston.