THE 39 Steps has enjoyed a happy association with Yorkshire, first in North Country Theatre founder Nobby Dimon and Simon Corble’s initial stage concept of taut thriller and comic release.
Next came Patrick Barlow’s frantically fast-moving yet unflappable West Yorkshire Playhouse adventure with seeds sown in the earlier show.
Barlow’s spiffing version has since played here, there and everywhere, first given Stephen Joseph Theatre comedic top spin by artistic director Paul Robinson in June 2018.
Five summers on, Robinson revisits that slick, playful jaffa of a show, with the promise of 39 new gags, one for each step, to supplement the elegance, eloquence and elasticity of this dapper and dastardly clever whodunit.
Niall Ransome is back from 2018, in the same role (make that multiple roles) but now called Clown 1, rather than Man. Significantly, he teams up with fellow Mischief maker Dave Hearn, duly mining the hugely popular Mischief brand for dextrous feats of physical comedy rooted in a battle of wits and will against chaos and catastrophe.
York audiences have experienced Hearn’s manic craft already this year in Original Theatre’s three-hander account of HG Wells’s The Time Machine, another comedy vehicle steered by a short-handed cast in a race against time.
On that occasion, in a play within a play conceit, his assertive, egotistical Dave Wells was in such a hurry, he wore tracksuit trousers and trainers.
This time, in a play with a novel and a film within it, Hearn is playing more of an old-fashioned, cigarette-card matinee idol, Richard Hannay, side-parting in his immaculate haircut, side splitting in his comic clambering on the Forth Bridge, reminiscent of a Harold Lloyd or Buster Keaton. Suspense in suspension.
This is but one of a series of scenes that re-creates setpieces from The Master’s movies, complemented by pastiches and references to other Hitchcock classics, with new additions among those 39 new jokes.
The novel is John Buchan’s The Thirty-Nine Steps; the film is Alfred Hitchcock’s 1935 British spy thriller, based loosely on Buchan’s serialised 1915 work. Barlow and in turn Robinson marry the two together, gravely serious in replicating the tone and dramatic peaks of both against all logical odds, while finding comedy at every opportunity without turning everything into a stiff upped-lipped send-up.
This is Hearn’s skill too, serving Hannay’s dispirited mien first and foremost before the John Cleese school of alarm-bell comedy bursts through. Dashing and upright, yes, with pipe and pencil-slim moustache, but newly returned to his lonely Portland Place abode, he is tired of life and its mounting pile of problems. Felling anything but alive in 1935. Suicidal even.
What he needs is…a night at the theatre (don’t we all, especially one like this!), only for a much bigger problem to ensue once there. Not only must he navigate his way through hairpin bends of Buchan’s book and Hitchcock’s film, but now too he finds himself murder suspect number one when a mysterious German woman, Annabelle Schmidt (Olivia Onyehara), dies in his arms after insisting on leaving the London Palladium by his side, desperate to impart vital information.
In a moment typical of the comic invention in Hearn’s performance, he extricates himself from beneath the dead weight of the woman’s body by using the knife in her back as a lever.
Hannay must hot-foot it to Scotland by train. On his fluttering jacket tail are policemen, secret agents and assorted women, all delivered with elan by Ransome and Lucy Keirl’s Clown combo, parading accents and exaggerated characters stride by stride, sometimes side by side.
What cracking casting in Ransome making his return in tandem with Keirl, who is as delightful as she was in Nick Lane’s Cinderella at the SJT last winter.
Onyehara, a familiar name to Yorkshire credits lists from her work with Pilot Theatre, Shakespeare’s Rose Theatre, Hull Truck and York Theatre Royal, is terrific too. Not only as anguished Annabelle, but also as femme fatale Pamela and shy but far from retiring Scottish farmer’s wife Margaret, each drawn to the cut of Hannay’s jib.
Ever straight as Geoffrey Boycott’s bat at North Marine Road, Hearn’s narrator Hannay takes on whatever is thrown at him, defying the need to lead the story-telling with such limited resources, improvising emergency props and scenery, chalking up those extra gags amid the comic carnage.
Robinson’s 2023 company applies even quicker sleight of hand to Barlow’s spinning plates of verbal wit, theatrical anarchy, satirical savvy and visual panache, somehow pulling off their Hitchcock homage without a hitch.
Simon Slater’s sound design, compositions and nods to swing tunes play their part too, as do Helen Coyston’s fabulous, fun costumes and set design, stretched by Robinson’s direction beyond the SJT stage to the aisles and director’s box too.
Look out for the ushers blocking the exits at one particularly urgent moment. Even the theatre is against Hannay! Make sure you too are trapped in his breathless, befuddled world before this month is out. Box office: 01723 370541 or sjt.uk.com.
Original Theatre in The Time Machine, York Theatre Royal, today at 2.30pm and 7.30pm.Box office: 01904 623568 or yorktheatreroyal.co.uk.
SORRY, there isn’t much time left. Either for CharlesHutchPress to write this review after a truly madly deeply busy week spent in the darkness of theatres and gig venues. Or for you to read it or see The Time Machine before it leaves town forever.
Oh, for a time machine to have made time e x p a n d. Anyway, no time to delay. This is “father of science fiction” H G Wells’s The Time Machine. Or rather it is and it isn’t.
It is based loosely – clinging by its finger nails, more like – on Wells’s 1895 debut full-length sci-fi novel, the one where the Time Traveller invents a device for travelling through time on a journey to the year 802,701.
Herbert George Wells, by the way, used his time well, so well that he wrote more than 50 novels and dozens of short stories, while his non-fiction output took in works of social commentary, politics, history, science, satire, biography and autobiography.
Ah, but he didn’t write The Time Machine, A Comedy, instead the madcap work of Steven Canny, once associate director of Complicite, and John Nicholson, artistic director of Peepolykus, fellow specialists in absurdist, absurdly funny comedies.
In a compressed nutshell, three actors run a theatre company that’s trying to put on a production of The Time Machine, but with fairly limited success. “Limited” in the sense that Hearn, Amy Revelle and Michael Dylan keep veering wildly from Wells’s intention to travel to the end of the Earth’s life to reflect on our own.
A big event happens that causes the play to spiral out of control as Hearn’s character, also called Dave, discovers actual time travel. Spoiler alert.
Like in Hearn’s exploits for Mischief Theatre for the past decade, comedy rules all in the desire to get to the end, no matter what mishaps, detours, distractions befall the performance, within the structure of a play within a play, where the actors’ own world permeates the text.
In this case, Hearn is playing Dave Wells, HG’s assertive, egotistical great-great grandson, who wants to tell HG’s sci-fi tale, and is in such a hurry to do so, he is wearing tracksuit trousers and trainers.
But then so too are Amy, the “sensible” one who just wants to sing Cher songs at every opportunity, and Irishman Michael, a lovable science geek who’s having something of a meltdown day. Science fiction meets science friction as they are always on the cusp of falling out.
A door (vital to all farces), a chaise longue, dapper Victorian costumes, a theatrical knife prop, sounds off stage and repetition, repetition, repetition, all add to the fun and games.
“This is a show that laughs in the face of despair and insists on shining light in gloomy times,” says director Orla O’Laughlin (who even has a ‘laugh’ in her surname).
It does do exactly that, while also finding room for audience participation (on and off stage), show tunes, a mischievous nod to Derren Brown, explorations of the fourth dimension, and the “science bit” as Hearn turns into a boffin lecturer. Heck, sometimes, even HG’s story strives to get back on track amid the madness and the mayhem, as all’s Wells that ends well.
This is ‘metatheatre’, to use a pretentious word, but it is often ‘megatheatre’ too, judging by the excited reaction of the matinee school party in the dress circle.
Time and space is running out. What are you waiting for? Why are you still reading this? There’s no time like the present to see The Time Machine. Now.
THE week ahead is so crammed with clashing cultural highlights, Charles Hutchinson wishes you could climb aboard a time machine.
Find time for: Original Theatre in The Time Machine, York Theatre Royal, Tuesday to Saturday, 7.30pm plus 2pm Thursday and 2.30pm Saturday matinees
DAVE Hearn, a fixture in Mischief Theatre’s calamitous comedies for a decade, takes time out to go time travelling in John Nicholson and Steven Canny’s re-visit of H G Wells’s epic sci-fi story for Original Theatre.
“It’s a play about three actors who run a theatre company and are trying to put on a production of The Time Machine, with fairly limited success,” says Hearn. “But then a big event happens that causes the play to spiral out of control and my character [Dave] discovers actual time travel.” Box office: 01904 623568 or yorktheatreroyal.co.uk.
Farewell of the week: The Curtain Descends, Village Gallery, Colliergate, York, until April 15
AS the title indicates, The Curtain Descends will be the last exhibition at Village Gallery after 40 exhibitions showcasing 100-plus Yorkshire artists in five and a half years. “The end of the shop lease and old age creeping up has sadly forced the decision,” says gallery co-owner Simon Main.
Ten artists have returned for the farewell with work reduced specially to sale prices. On show are watercolours by Lynda Heaton, Jean Luce and Suzanne McQuade; oils and acrylics by Paul Blackwell, Julie Lightburn, Malcolm Ludvigsen, Anne Thornhill and Hilary Thorpe; pastels by Allen Humphries and lino and woodcut prints by Michael Atkin. Opening hours are 10am to 4pm, Tuesday to Saturday.
Festival of the week: York Literature Festival, various venues, today until March 27
HIGHLIGHTS aplenty permeate this annual festival, featuring 27 events, bolstered by new sponsorship from York St John University. Among the authors will be broadcasters David Dimbleby and Steve Richards; political journalist and think tank director Sebastian Payne (on The Fall of Boris Johnson); The League Of Gentlemen’s Jeremy Dyson; Juno Dawson, thriller writer Saima Mir and York poet Hannah Davies.
On Music Memoir Day at The Crescent, on March 18, at 1.30pm American singer PP Arnold delves into her autobiography, Soul Survivor, at 1.30pm. At 4pm, writer/broadcaster Lucy O’Brien discusses her new book, Lead Sister: The Story Of Karen Carpenter, and the challenges of writing a biography. Go to yorkliteraturefestival.co.uk for the full programme.
Hot moves amid the weekend chill: Gorka Marquez and Karen Hauer in Firedance, Grand Opera House, York, Sunday, 5pm
STRICTLY Come Dancing stars Gorka Marquez and Karen Hauer reignite their chemistry in Firedance, a show full of supercharged choreography, sizzling dancers and mesmerising fire specialists.
Inspired by movie blockbusters Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo & Juliet, Moulin Rouge, Carmen and West Side Story, Marquez and Hauer turn up the heat as they dance to Latin, rock and pop songs by Camilla Cabello, Jason Derulo, Gregory Porter, Gipsy Kings and Jennifer Lopez. Box office: atgtickets.com/york.
Gig of the week: Suede, York Barbican, Wednesday, 7.45pm
ELEGANT London rock band Suede play York Barbican for the first time in more than 25 years on the closing night of their 2023 tour. Pretty much sold out, alas, but do check yorkbarbican.co.uk for late availability.
Last appearing there on April 23 1997, Brett Anderson and co return with a set list of Suede classics and selections from last September’s Autofiction, their ninth studio album and first since 2018. “Our punk record,” as Anderson called it. “No whistles and bells. The band exposed in all their primal mess.”
Debut of the week: York Actors Collective in Entertaining Mr Sloane, Theatre@41, Monkgate, York, Wednesday to Saturday, 7.30pm plus 2.30pm Saturday matinee
DIRECTOR Angie Millard launches her new company, York Actors Collective, with Joe Orton’s controversial, ribald comedy Entertaining Mr Sloane, the one that shook up English farce with its savage humour in 1964.
Living with her father, Dada Kemp (Mick Liversidge), Kath (Victoria Delaney) brings home a lodger: the amoral and psychopathic Sloane (Ben Weir). When her brother Ed (Chris Monfrett) arrives, the siblings become involved in a sexual struggle for Sloane, who plays one off against the other as their father is caught in the crossfire. Box office: tickets.41monkgate.co.uk.
Education, education, education play of the week: Rowntree Players in Teechers, Joseph Rowntree Theatre, York, Thursday to Saturday, 7.30pm plus 2.30pm Saturday matinee
FAMILIAR to York’s streets at night as ghost-walk guide and spookologist Dr Dorian Deathly, actor Jamie McKellar is directing a play for the first time since 2008, at the helm of Rowntree Players’ production of former teacher John Godber’s state-of-the nation, state-of state-education comedy Teechers.
Updated for Hull Truck’s 50th anniversary celebrations as Teechers Leavers ’22, Godber’s class warfare play within a play features a multi role-playing, all-female cast of Laura Castle, Sophie Bullivant and Sarah Howlett as Year 11 school leavers Salty, Hobby and Gail put on a valedictory performance, inspired by their new drama teacher. Box office: 01904 501935 or josephrowntreetheatre.co.uk.
The robots are coming: David Ford, Songs 2023, The Crescent, York, Thursday, 7.30pm
EASTBOURNE singer-songwriter David Ford might play solo stomps with loop machines and effects pedals or backed by a swish jazz trio or with a string quartet attached. Not this time.
For 2023, Ford has taken the rare decision to keep it simple, leave most of the crazy machines at home, play some of his favourite songs and share stories about where they came from. Oh, and he’ll be bringing his new DIY toy, a drum robot. Beat that. Box office: thecrescentyork.com.
Tuesday’s seated Crescent gig by The Go-Betweens’ Robert Forster, promoting his new album The Candle And The Flame, has sold out by the way.
Caring comedian of the week: Burning Duck Comedy Club presents Bilal Zafar in Care, Theatre@41, Monkgate, York, March 19, 8pm
WANSTEAD comedian Bilal Zafar, 31, is on his travels with a new show about how he spent a year working in a care home for very wealthy people while being on the minimum wage.
Fresh out of university with a media degree, Bilal was dropped into the real world, where he was given far too much responsibility for a 21-year-old lad who had just spent three years watching films. Box office: tickets.41monkgate.co.uk; age limit,18 and over.
In Focus: Anders Lustgarten’sThe City And The Town, at Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, March 15 to 17
LONDON playwright and political activist Anders Lustgarten’s new play, The City And The Town, heads to the Yorkshire coast next week.
This funny, eclectic drama brings a fresh perspective to the political divides and problems facing Great Britain and Europe today.
By way of contrast to those schisms, the tour involves a hands-across-the-water partnership: a co-production by Riksteatern, the national touring theatre of Sweden, and Matthew Linley Creative Projects in association with Hull Truck Theatre.
Lustgarten’s play tells the story of brothers Ben and Magnus. Ben, a successful London lawyer, returns home for his father’s funeral after 13 years away, only to be confronted not only by family and old friends, but also by uncomfortable truths about the past, present and future of the provincial community and family he grew up in and left behind for the metroplis.
Lustgarten, by the way, is the son of progressive American academics and read Chinese Studies at Oxford: in other words, he is an internationalist (and an Arsenal supporter to boot).
Directed by Riksteatern artistic director Dritero Kasapi, The City And The Town features Gareth Watkins as Magnus, Amelia Donkor as Lyndsay and Sam Collings as Ben, with set design by Hannah Sibai and lighting design by Matt Haskins.
Kasapi is at the helm of his first UK production since Nina – A Story About Me And Nina Simone. “Even from the very first draft Anders sent us, I knew that this was a play I wanted to direct,” he says. “In fact, I’d go as far as saying it’s the play I’ve wanted to direct for a very long time.
“By exploring the rise of the right, Anders is looking at something that is happening all over Europe. But this is not just a political play, it’s also a humane one. It explores the question of if and how we belong to society, what can happen when we lose that connection and how we perceive our common history as a society.”
Kasapi was educated as a stage director at the Faculty of Dramatic Arts in Skopje, Macedonia, but since the early years of his professional life he has been engaged as a cultural organiser.
From 2015 to 2018, he was the deputy artistic director at Kulturhuset Stadstetern in Stockholm. He took up his present post in November 2018.
The City And The Town follows such Lustgarten plays as Lampedusa (Hightide/Soho Theatre), The Seven Acts Of Mercy (Royal Shakespeare Company), The Secret Theatre(Shakespeare’s Globe) and The Damned United (Red Ladder/West Yorkshire Playhouse, 2016, turning Brian Clough’s 44 days as Leeds United manager in 1974 into a Greek tragedy).
The City And The Town began its UK tour at Hull Truck on February 10 and 11 and has since played Northern Stage, Newcastle, Wilton’s Music Hall, London, Mercury Theatre, Colchester, and Norwich Playhouse before its Scarborough finale. It will then transfer to Sweden for an autumn tour.
The City And The Town, Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, March 15 to 17, 7.45pm plus 1.45pm Thursday matinee.Box office: 01723 370541 or www.sjt.uk.com
DAVE Hearn, co-founder of those clever clowns in calamitous theatre Mischief Theatre, is spending time away from his comedic cohorts to go travelling through the country in The Time Machine.
From March 14 to 18, his time travels will bring him to York Theatre Royal in Peepolykus duo John Nicholson and Steven Canny’s re-visit of H G Wells’s epic sci-fi story for Original Theatre.
“It’s a play about three actors who run a theatre company and are trying to put on a production of The Time Machine, with fairly limited success,” says Hearn of this “comic version like no other you’ve seen” as Wells’s storyline travels to the end of the earth’s life to reflect on our own.
“But then a big event happens that causes the play to spiral out of control and my character [Dave] discovers actual time travel.”
Billed as an “out of this world, fast paced, wise-cracking comedy where science fiction and science fact collide and extraordinary, mind-boggling things can happen”, how does Orla O’Laughlin’s production contrast with such Mischief-making capers as The Play That Goes Wrong, The Comedy About A Bank Robbery and Magic Goes Wrong.
“In some ways it’s similar, though I’d say it’s less reliant on big set pieces and more focused on the relationships between the characters. And I think it’s possibly more intellectually challenging, in the nicest way! The writers have done a brilliant job.”
Hearn is not an H G Wells aficionado, but he is a science fiction fan in general. “I read the entire Dune trilogy, which took me the best part of my life, but it’s mind-blowing stuff,” he says. “I think the play does a great job of making Wells’s story accessible, even to those without knowledge of the source material.”
Hearn is playing Dave, H G Wells’s great-great-grandson, in Nicholson and Canny’s version. “He’s very excited to be presenting a production of The Time Machine. He’s quite assured of his own writing gifts, and really wants to prove himself in this regard, even when it’s not completely appropriate. I quite respect him for that in many ways.”
Should you be wondering, Dave was not named after him. “I originally auditioned for one of the other parts. I remember reading it and thinking I did an OK job, but felt intuitively that I’d be a better Dave,” Hearn says. “Eventually they asked me to read for Dave, and then everything made a lot more sense.”
Hearn began performing in his schooldays. “I did GCSE drama because – believe it or not – I was a very shy young man, and decided doing drama might help boost my confidence. I got an A* and then, after a spell doing odd jobs, decided to go to Harlow College and do a BTEC in performing arts,” he recalls.
“I always really enjoyed it, though I think I was quite arrogant as well. I genuinely thought I was a great actor, and I remember talking to my mum about going to drama school like it was completely my choice.”
To enable him to do the drama foundation course at LAMDA, his parents sold their house and car. “I don’t think I realised at the time just what a show of faith that was. They were so supportive,” he says.
LAMDA (the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art) was to be the meeting place for the Mischief makers, Henry Shields, Henry Lewis and Jonathan Sayer, and regular performer Hearn, who hit the jackpot with The Play That Goes Wrong.
“That was around five or six years after we formed Mischief [in 2008]. We didn’t pay ourselves during that period, we just kept making sure we had enough to do Edinburgh every year. Then around 2012 we decided we would write a Christmas show, The Murder Before Christmas at the Old Red Lion,” he says.
“We performed it at 9.30pm each night and had to store the set on the roof under a tarpaulin, because there was no space. It was woefully unsafe, but we kept going and after we finished the run the artistic director asked us to come back a few weeks later because another show had cancelled. That show became The Play That Goes Wrong.”
Hearn went on to enjoy a decade of success with Mischief and foresees a return to the fold, but he was ready to spread his wings. “It felt like a big decision for me not to go to Broadway with Peter Pan Goes Wrong. There were some personal reasons for that, but I’d wanted for a while to step away from Mischief,” he reveals.
“I could feel the beginnings of resentment creeping in, because I felt like I had to be loyal to the company. Nobody put that on me, that was all from me, but it felt right to step away. I’m enjoying being in a room with other people again. With Mischief the work is always very collaborative, but it’s actually quite nice just being told where to stand.”
One last question: if Hearn had a real time machine, where would he travel? “I’d love to go to the future, and see what cool gadgets they have,” he says. “Maybe I could go to the year 3,000, and see if Busted were right.”
Original Theatre’s The Time Machine travels to York Theatre Royal from March 14 to 18, 7.30pm plus 2pm Thursday and 2.30pm Saturday matinees. Box office: 01904 623568 or yorktheatreroyal.co.uk. Warning: May contain show tunes.