Arts correspondent BELLA BARTOCK was transported back to an earlier age, of intrigue and mystery, and night trains to Scotland, by an energetic staging of a John Buchan classic
My heart skipped a beat when I saw the poster from the Croydon Operatic and Dramatic Association advertising The 39 Steps at the Cryer Theatre. When I was a young girl, we lived in Canada for a while and Daddy knew the Governor, who would come for tea and tell us stories. I didn’t know it at the time, but John Buchan was also busy writing thrillers. One of them turned out to be The 39 Steps.
I rang my friend Claudia de Boozey to ask if she would like to come to see it. I had to hold the phone away from my ear as she went on and on and on about how she much she loved the 1959 film version with Kenneth More and Taina Elg. I had to tell her the play would be quite different, but I was sure it would be something we would really enjoy.
Claudia and I were pleased that my nephew Kenny is such a good driver. The rain was monsoon-like as we splashed our way through the puddles at Fiveways and on to Carshalton. Once inside the theatre’s cosy bar for our sherry, Claudia grabbed a table besides a Psycho film poster, telling anyone who would listen how much she enjoyed Albert Hitchcock’s films.
I corrected her.
“Oh dear,” she said, “I’m muddling up my Einsteins and my Hitchcocks now. That’s not good.”
I muttered something about empty vessels… She focused on emptying her schooner.
When we took our seats and looked at the set, I was transported back to my childhood. A leather armchair, a black Bakelite telephone and a standard lamp with a fringed shade. Just like home.
Claudia eyed the telephone. “It’s a curse for AmDram groups that is Bella. Actor picks it up and it carries on ringing. Then you just look foolish.” Claudia needn’t have worried.
The CODA technical and backstage crew were on top of their game here, with slick and humorous phone routines as well as enhancing the action with “moorland fog”, “Christmas snow” and a wonderful “roaring fire” in the hotel room.
From the moment Richard Hannay took his seat on the leather chair for the opening monologue, I had the feeling that this was going to be a good evening. First impressions are so important I always think, and David Manson, playing Buchan’s hero, quickly put the audience at their ease and then gripped their attention.
“It’s like the Music Hall,” whispered Claudia, as the comedy duo, energetically and skillfully played by Alex Cooper and Paul Cohen, began their double act as the Memory Man and his assistant. “That isn’t right,” she hissed when he said that Tottenham won the FA Cup in 1926, though how Bella would know, I haven’t a clue.
“Lesley Welch wouldn’t have made that mistake,” she said, scathingly. “He was the real Memory Man.”
“Ssh,” I told her, and I missed hearing the next question, which was about Canada. Trust Buchan to have included one about the old frontiers’ land.
We were both so wrapped up in the comedy that we never noticed Hannay now sitting in the audience with a rather elegant lady next to him. This was his first encounter with the mysterious Annabella Schmidt, played with alluring guile by Ella McDonnell.
Back in his flat, she readily accepted a whisky or three, turned down the offer of haddock, told Hannay of the plot to kill her and left our hero to mull over this gross intrusion into his bachelorhood before she went to bed.
It is when Schmidt falls dead on to Hannay’s lap while he is sitting in his leather chair that the action really takes off.
Wriggling free from under her prone body, Hannay quickly adjusts to life on the run, beginning with a dawn meeting with his milkman, the first of Paul Cohen’s many superb character changes. Under Paul Hudson’s terrific first foray into directing, the pace of the play is just right: frantic when it needed to be, but slower in those more reflective moments.
The train sequences were especially well done. “I couldn’t believe those two men could play all those different parts,” Claudia said, still giggling about the size of the underwear produced by the lingerie salesman, another guise for Paul Cohen.
I was much more impressed about how the actors and technical team convinced us that we really were watching a drama on the Forth Bridge, followed by a dramatic escape.
The portrayal of the Scottish elements of the story were inspired. Alex Cooper’s appearance as the hotelier’s wife was straight out of Little Britain. He played the old Crofter John with a zealous fervour.
The scene where he said grace in his farmhouse, only to have his pomposity punctured when Hannay thought they should join hands, was hilarious. “John Laurie, you know, the one in Dad’s Army, played that part in the 1935 film,” Claudia reminded me. “And Peggy Ashcroft was the crofter’s wife, Margaret,” I shot back.
“Ah poor Margaret,” mused Claudia. “I always felt so sorry for her in the film. Always downtrodden, but she never lost her spark. Ella played her well, didn’t she?”
“Aye, lass, she did tha’.”
Claudia was full of it as Kenny drove us back to Croydon. I just let her talk. That showed she’d had a good evening. “Oh, and what about the dummy? That was clever too. And the chap who played Hannay, he was a bit like Basil Fawlty when he got cross, wasn’t he?”
When I got home I poured myself a nightcap and sat in my favourite armchair mulling over play. It had taken me back all those years. I always enjoyed John Buchan coming to our house. What would he have made of tonight?
He’d have laughed his head off, like the rest of us I expect. The art of good storytelling is still alive and kicking. Well, it is at the Cryer Theatre for the next few nights.
- CODA’S production of The 39 Steps run continues tonight through until to Saturday November 5 at the CryerArts Centre, 39 High Street, Carshalton, with evening performances at 7.45pm, and a matinee on Saturday at 2.30pm. Tickets are £14 or £15 full price and £13 or £14 concessions (plus booking fee), and can be booked online at www.cryerarts.co.uk, or by telephone on 020 8669 2444
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