REVIEW: York Settlement Community Players in The 39 Steps, running until…fate intervened ****

Chemistry: Sanna Buck’s femme fatale and Aran MacRae’s Richard Hannay in Settlement Players’ The 39 Steps. Picture: John Saunders

John Buchan, Alfred Hitchcock, Simon Corble, Nobby Dimon and Patrick Barlow’s The 39 Steps, York Settlement Community Players, Theatre@41, Monkgate, York, no longer dashing about with pencil-slim moustache panache until Sunday afternoon, alas, after cast illness.

DRINK in hand, it was time to sit back in the John Cooper Studio’s cabaret-style seating, relax and let the suspenseful comic drama begin.

Glass empty, (product-placed York Gin) bottle likewise, Aran MacRae’s Lieutenant Richard Hannay is slumped in his dull, lonely, newly rented Portland Place flat. He’s a man in an emotional pickle, on the edge, on the ledge, “tired of the world and tired of life” as the problems pile up. Suicidal, even, and in need of love as it later turns out.

So far, so sombre. What the dashing but hopes-dashed Hannay needs is “something pointless and trivial” to shake him out of his torpor. “I know,” he says. “Go to the theatre.” Boom, there goes the first big laugh, an insider knowing joke told against theatre, delivered with perfect comic timing, and so Harri Marshall’s production immediately hits its stride.

Writer Patrick Barlow: Fast-moving, snappily-clever, needs-must version of The 39 Steps

This is Patrick Barlow’s fast-moving, snappily clever version of The 39 Steps, the one he scripted for the West Yorkshire Playhouse and later West End and international success from an original Yorkshire-founded concept by Simon Corble and Nobby Dimon.

In a nutshell, Marshall’s cast is charged with hitching John Buchan’s story of murder, suspense and intrigue to the thrills, spills and daring deeds of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1935 film in a deranged marriage of comedy, farce, misadventure, mystery and thriller.

In Barlow’s National Theatre of Brent days, he would have his mock two-man theatre troupe, Desmond and Raymond, re-enact the Light Brigade and the Zulu Wars in a send-up of short-handed theatre companies.

Past productions of The 39 Steps divided its 135 characters between a cast of four, one man for Hannay, a woman for three women, and two men or a man and a woman (as in Rowntree Players’ 2015 production at the Joseph Rowntree Theatre), nominally called Man 1 and Man 2, for the rest.

Aran MacRae’s “tired of the world and tired of life” Richard Hannay. Picture: John Saunders

Marshall marshals rather more forces, calling on six men in black, Daniel Boyle, Andrew Isherwood, Matthew Lomax, Jim Paterson, Matt Pattison and Stephen Wright, to take on Barlow’s trademark needs-must, bargain-basement theatre style as The Clowns.

This demands that they must improvise props on the hoof amid the dearth of resources, wear multiple hats metaphorically and sometimes physically in leaping from role to role, and somehow ensure the smooth delivery of a performance, (hoping the audience won’t notice the absence of an errant stage manager, but Barlow/Marshall knowing they will).

From Lip Service to Mischief’s The Play That Goes Wrong, this is a slick, precise, unflappable  comic device that has borne the ripest fruit, and here Marshall’s misrule of six brings a new dimension to both the madcap comedy capers and to the underlying darkness.

Barlow’s play often draws comparison with the anarchic spirit and teamwork of Monty Python; now, after Marshall’s innovation, the absurdist League of Gentlemen come to mind too. Daniel Boyle’s voice and looning eyes remind you of late Python Terry Jones; Matthew Lomax’s female characterisations echo the Gents.  

Unforgettable: Daniel Boyle as Mr Memory in The 39 Steps. Picture: John Saunders

All the while, there is a story to tell, driven by narrator Hannay, MacRae’s upright Hannay playing it absolutely rod-straight, whatever hurdle is thrown his way from Hitchcock’s thriller and other Hitchcock works besides, as he ends up as murder suspect number one when a mysterious German woman with a gun, Annabelle Schmidt (Sanna Buck), dies in his arms after insisting on leaving the London Palladium by his side, desperate to impart important information.

On his tail as he heads to Scotland by train are policemen, secret agents and assorted women, and Marshall’s forces pull off Barlow’s obstacle course with elan, whether faced by re-enacting Hitchcock’s chase on the Flying Scotsman, the escape from the Forth Bridge, the first ever theatrical bi-plane crash [reprised from 1959’s North By Northwest] or a death-defying finale. Every Hitch homage defiantly goes off without a hitch.

Particularly strong is the chemistry between MacRae and Buck, a Swedish-born stage and film actor performing in York for the first time. MacRae, a professional with West End credits, now back in his home city, wholly lives up to Marshall’s billing that he would “balance brilliant playfulness against being earnest when required”, while Buck is to the Thirties’ manner born in her trio of roles as mystery German woman Annabelle, an alluring English femme fatale and a shy but helpful Scottish farmer’s wife. What a debut!

Caught on the hop: Harri Marshall’s company breaks into a dance step in The 39 Steps. Picture: John Saunders

Praise too for Helen Taylor’s wardrobe, especially for MaCrae and Buck, and Richard Hampton and Graham Sanderson’s set and lighting designs.

What rotten luck that, after the supremely assured first night, cast illness should rob the company and audiences alike of further performances of such verbal vim, satirical brio, dextrous stage craft, inventive surprise and even a sudden outbreak of dancing, as taught in rehearsal to the ever-game cast by York Lindy Hop.

No matter how frustrating the sudden curtailment must feel to Harri and her cast, Settlement Players’ first live show since March 2020 has been totally worthwhile, reminding us of MacRae’s considerable talent, first shown in youth theatre days, introducing York to Buck and bringing together a pool of performers it would be good to see working together again.

Director Harri Marshall: Heavy heart at having to call off the remaining performances

York Settlement Community Players’ statement on Friday:

“We are very sorry to announce that, due to cast illness and circumstances beyond our control, all remaining performances of The 39 Steps are cancelled (Fri 12, Sat 13 and Sun 14 November).

“All ticket holders for these affected performances will be contacted by email and receive a full refund. We ask that you please bear with us and theatre@41 while the necessary arrangements are made and thank you for your patience at this time.

“We would like to express our utmost thanks to the cast and crew for their commitment and creativity over the past months. It is with a heavy heart that we make this necessary decision but look forward to putting on more great theatre in York next year.”

The Killer Question: will YOU be watching Just Some Theatre’s dark comedy thriller?

In the chair tonight: Just Some Theatre in rehearsal for The Killer Question

WHAT is The Killer Question? The answer will come on Saturday when Silence Of The Lambs meets Last Of The Summer Wine in Just Some Theatre’s dark comedy thriller at Theatre@41, Monkgate, York.

In the latest touring show from the Manchester company behind 2013’s Coward and 2017’s The Doppelgang, former game show champion Walter Crump lives for murder.

It was even his specialist subject on the nerve-shredding general knowledge quiz show The Chair, but did his obsession with death ultimately lead to his own? Inspector Black certainly believes so, and now Crump’s dopey widow, Margaret, finds herself in the chair, accused of her husband’s murder. 

However, as shocking details emerge concerning the events leading to Walter’s final head-to-head, it soon transpires that what started out as an open-and-shut case has turned into another game altogether: one of the cat and mouse variety, with more than one deadly twist in the tale. 

Will Inspector Black solve the mystery? Will Margaret be home in time for Countryfile? Who will prove to be the ultimate victim of The Chair? Questions, so many questions, but there will be one more: which actor will play which character? Saturday’s audience in the John Cooper Studio will decide.

Just Some Theatre’s poster for Saturday’s performance of The Killer Question at Theatre@41, Monkgate, York

Those actors in question in Dave Payne’s 95-minute thriller will be University of Central Lancashire alumni Peter Stone, Jake Urry and Jordan Moore, now settled into an autumn tour of Alex Tole’s production from September 18 to November 4.

“In 2019, we did a script call-out and received over 300 scripts,” recalls Peter. “We worked our way through them all – it took a very long time! – and then The Killer Question script turned up and we thought, ‘it’s brilliant, but it’s way out of our casting bracket’ because it features an elderly couple in their 70s and a retiring policeman.

“We’re all in our 30s, so it’s obviously a big stretch, but then we thought, ‘if we were to do it in a League Of Gentlemen style, then it would suit us. It turned out Dave wrote it after seeing an episode of Inside No. 9 [the BBC Two dark comedy series created by League Of Gentlemen’s Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton].”

Playwright Payne, “a fantastic Midlands-based writer and producer for BBC Radio 4’s The Archers”, brings “a lot of humour and style from that show”, as well as from his sketch-writing for the CBBC comedy Class Dismissed, to Just Some Theatre’s biggest project to date, working with director Alex Tole for the first time.

“When it came to choosing who we should each play, we all liked them all, and I rather foolishly said, ‘why don’t we all play all of them, with the audience getting to decide who we play each night?’.

“We all agreed, and that now gives the start a game-show feel, a quiz show-feel, where we give a brief introduction to ourselves and the characters, thought we don’t give too much away, and then the audience have to hold up a programme, with one face per page, to cast their votes for that night’s roles.

Just Some Theatre coming to grips with Dave Payne’s comedy thriller The Killer Question in the rehearsal room

“Because they’re three very archetypal characters, we each bring something different to them, but they’re all very loveable, though we do each have the same favourite! We all love playing Margaret.

“The other day I had to drive around Manchester dressed as Margaret – and yes, I did get some funny looks!”

After breaking down the fourth wall with that informal start, Just Some Theatre’s cast then “well and truly build it up again” for the mystery thriller. “That’s one of the challenges. It requires us to perform in two different styles,” says Peter.

Just Some Theatre will be making their Theatre@41 debut. “Alan Park, from the York theatre, saw the show on the Lowry theatre website, and said to us, ‘hey, it looks great, would you bring it over here?’,” recalls Peter.

“It fitted us perfectly because we needed one more date to complete the tour and we needed one in that area. York was perfect; we’ve always wanted to perform there.

“Theatre@41, being in a former church hall, will really lend itself to the grandiose, slightly off-kilter world we’re creating.”

Just Some Theatre working on a scene for The Killer Question

Like so many theatre companies, Just Some Theatre have had to skate their way through the cracks and crevices of these pandemic times, receiving an Emergency Response Grant from Arts Council to cover costs for six months.

“That meant we could look at how we were working and how we could employ others to work with us, and so we employed 50 creatives for a Forward Dialogue project: 11 writers; ten scripts; ten directors, and a sea of actors, working online as part of that first wave of Zoom theatre,” says Peter.

“The final piece that ‘won’ the event, was called Happy!, written by Charlotte Souter and directed by Amy Burns Walker, a familiar name to York theatre audiences.  They created something truly unique that was really fabulous to see, with one actor ‘passing’ the same prop via the camera to the other actor ‘receiving it’. Brilliant!”

Ironically, just before the Covid cloud descended, Just Some Theatre had been touring a post-apocalyptic comedy about The Four Horsemen, who teamed up to create their own little virus. “Then Covid killed off that tour halfway through, just as we were about to start doing some shows for Cheshire Rural Arts Touring, after doing our urban dates. By that stage, if someone coughed, everyone fell silent, though the show was supposed to be a comedy.”  

Tickets for Saturday’s 7.30pm performance of Just Some Theatre’s The Killer Question cost £12 at

Are you ready for extreme terror, tension and ghost tremors at Grand Opera House?

The lecturer in Ghost Stories: “The supernatural is purely a trick of the mind,” he says…but is it?

THE Grand Opera House, York, already has its own ghost, one said to call out the first name of a new member of staff in the quiet of the auditorium on first acquaintance.

No doubt that will intrigue Professor Goodman, ahead of the lecturer’s visit to the Cumberland Street theatre from March 10 to 14 as the investigative fulcrum of writer-directors Andy Nyman and Jeremy Dyson’s “supernatural sensation”, Ghost Stories, on its first national tour.

On the road since January 7 after completing its latest West End run at The Ambassadors Theatre, London, the Lyric Hammersmith Theatre production should feel at home in York, the self-proclaimed most haunted city in Europe.

What’s more, with the Grand Opera House’s proximity to the York Dungeon, “York’s scariest tourist attraction”, where better for Nyman and Dyson’s global hit to be spooking?

Premiered a decade ago and turned into a film too, Ghost Stories invites its captive audience to “enter a nightmarish world, full of thrilling twists and turns, where all your deepest fears and most disturbing thoughts are imagined live on stage”.

Expect a “fully sensory and electrifying encounter in the ultimate twisted love-letter to horror, a supernatural edge-of-your-seat theatrical experience like no other”, as Professor Goodman strives to prove the supernatural is “purely a trick of the mind” in the face of three stories that beg to differ.

“Ghost Stories has never really gone away, running in various incarnations since the original production a decade ago, going into the West End, then Canada, Moscow,” says co-writer Jeremy Dyson, best known for his work with those twisted humourists The League Of Gentlemen.

“It was done in Russian in Russia but we had to maintain that it was set in Britain because apparently no Russian is afraid of a ghost.”

Andy Nyman and Jeremy Dyson: co-writers and directors of Ghost Stories

The latest British incarnation opened at the Lyric Hammersmith last March, whereupon it was picked up by commercial producers keen to take it on the road. “We’d always wanted to do that but never been able to do so, even though we knew just how much people wanted to see it, but we were told it ‘wasn’t tourable’.”

Until now, until Jon Bausor came up with a design that could play both The Ambassadors Theatre and theatres around the country.

“He’s made it possible to squash the set into a van!” says Jeremy, who lives in Ilkley, by the way. “Each time we’ve staged the play, we’ve been able to solve another problem, get rid of another niggle, and finally we have the production that is totally to our satisfaction.

“The show’s been going down really well on tour, and it will fit perfectly into York with all its ghost stories and the York Dungeon opposite the Grand Opera House.”

Why are we so drawn to ghost stories, Jeremy? “I think there are lots of reasons,” he says. “One of them is obvious: death and the afterlife, which is a personal concern to all of us, and ghost stories are a way to approach such an overwhelming concern.

“That’s particularly so in our increasingly secular society, where there’s a hunger for the mysterious, the uncanny, the inexplicable, which once upon a time would have come under the auspices of the church and religion.

“That’s part of it, and also when it comes to a show like Ghost Stories, there’s the entertainment and the thrill, the fairground element.”

Nyman, London actor, director and writer, and Dyson, screen and stage writer and author, have been friends for a “very long time”. “Since we were teenagers, in fact,” says Jeremy. “We met when we were 15 and one of the things we bonded over was horror movies at the dawn of the video age, renting those films to watch them together.

The Caretaker: one of the three Ghost Stories to be told at the Grand Opera House, York

“We’ve had our individual careers and we’d never thought of working together, but out of the blue Andy called me with this idea of having three men sitting telling ghost stories after he saw The Vagina Monologues [Eve Ensler’s show with three women telling stories].

“It was a very intriguing idea that was enough to hook me straightaway, though we then veered away from that initial construction over a long gestation period.

“Creating Ghost Stories was very much a case of sitting in a room together, talking about it for a year, and then getting together, bashing out the outline, working every day for a week, when we pretty much hammered it out, because we’d been thinking about it for so long.”

Ghost Stories has drawn comparisons with Stephen Mallatratt’s stage adaptation of Susan Hill’s The Woman In Black, premiered at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, in 1987 and still running in the West End, but Jeremy was keen that Ghost Stories should stand in its own right.

“We wanted very much to create a theatre experience that we hadn’t had before, in terms of being a very immersive piece of theatre, and we also like the challenge of taking things that you’re familiar thematically from horror films and seeing if we could transfer them to the stage.”

A further element is at play in Ghost Stories. “Andy and I both have a love of conjuring and magic; Andy has worked with Derren Brown for 20, so we wanted to build that into the show’s structure,” says Jeremy. “We wanted to look at how you can create a magical effect with a combination of storytelling and technology, and that’s what we’ve achieved.”

Ghost Stories promises “moments of extreme shock and tension” at the Grand Opera House, York, from March 10 to 14. Box office: 0844 871 3024 or at Unsuitable for anyone under 15 years old.

Copyright of The Press, York