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.”

Hitting the Heights – Heathcliff Richard, throbbing passion and withering looks

Ash Hunter’s Heathcliff and Lucy McComick’s Cathy in Wise Children’s Wuthering Heights in 2021. Picture: Steve Tanner

AS Emma Rice’s adaptation of Emily Brontë’sWuthering Heights heads to York Theatre Royal from November 2, Steve Pratt considers the reaction to the original novel and previous incarnations of the story.

Bell, book and Brontë 

EMILY Brontë’s only novel Wuthering Heights was published in 1847 under the pseudonym Ellis Bell. Wuthering Heights and Anne Brontë’s Agnes Grey were accepted by publisher Thomas Newby before the success of their sister Charlotte’s novel Jane Eyre. 

It was described by reviewers as both “a disagreeable story” and “a strange book”. Another thought the faults of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre were “magnified a thousand-fold”, adding that “the only consolation which we have in reflecting upon it is that it will never be generally read”.

Another critic noted: “It is not without evidences of considerable power: but, as a whole, it is wild, confused, disjointed, and improbable; and the people who make up the drama, which is tragic enough in its consequences, are savages ruder than those who lived before the days of Homer.” 

Praise was in short supply. “We rise from the perusal of Wuthering Heightsas if we had come fresh from a pest-house. Read Jane Eyreis our advice, but burn Wuthering Heights,” suggested one critic. 

The writer in United States’ publication Graham’s Lady’s Magazine was clearly no fan: “How a human being could have attempted such a book as the present without committing suicide before he had finished a dozen chapters, is a mystery. It is a compound of vulgar depravity and unnatural horrors…”

Cliff Richard’s Heathcliff in 1996

Heath-Cliff Richard

HEATHCLIFF, a musical conceived by and starring Cliff Richard, centred on the character of – yes, you’ve guessed it – Heathcliff. Some imagined that dark and brooding Heathcliff was outside clean-cut pop star Cliff’s acting range. Song lyrics were by Tim Rice, no less. The musical’s book was not by Ms Brontë but Cliff and theatre director Frank Dunlop. 

A studio album with ten songs from the show, including duets with now-Dame Olivia Newton-John, was released in 1995 with the stage version premiering the following year in London. Ticket sales broke box office records although critics were less enthusiastic than Cliff’s fans.

Moors the merrier

IN 1939, MGM turned the book into a movie, recreating the Yorkshire Moors on a California ranch and in a Hollywood film studio. Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon starred. A “very poor” adaptation, thought one critic, adding: “The accuracy is dreadful, the characters are almost unrecognisable and the setting a century and a half out. Enjoy it as a romance but, if you watch as a portrayal of the book, you will be disappointed.”

Oscar-nominated as best picture, the film lost out to Gone With The Wind.

Ralph Fiennes, in his film debut as Heathcliff, and French star Juliette Binoche as Cathy in Peter Kosminsky’s 1992 film Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights

Beating about the Bush

WUTHERING Heights was Kate Bush’s debut single in 1977, written when she was 17. It became the first UK number one written and performed by a female artist.

Kiss me Hardy

THE 2009 ITV adaptation of Wuthering Heights starred Charlotte Riley and Tom Hardy, who became a couple in real life once the cameras stopped turning. Their romance had a happier ending than Cathy and Heathcliff’s – they are now married with children.

Throbbing passion 

JANET McTeer, the award-winning actor who worked in the York Theatre Royal coffee bar as a student, not only appeared in the 1992 Wuthering Heights film as Ellen Dean but also read the audio book.

A reviewer considered her performance brought the book fully to life, adding, “McTeer’s sections throb with the passions appropriate to this classic.”

O-O-Brontë 

THE forgotten James Bond – hands up those who remember Timothy Dalton played 007 in three movies – was shaken and stirred by Cathy when he played Heathcliff in the 1970 film. Producer Louis Heyward declared this would be more like the book than the first American version (not difficult), saying “Hollywood now goes in for the truth. Heathcliff was a bastard and Cathy a real bitch and that’s how they’ll be in this film”.

A sequel, Return to Wuthering Heights, was threatened but happily never materialised.

Lip Service satirists Maggie Fox and Sue Ryding in Withering Looks

‘Allo, ‘Allo, Eeethcleef

THE 1992 film version was shot on Yorkshire locations with Ralph Fiennes as Heathcliff and French actress Juliette Binoche as Cathy. The scenery was authentic but critics worried about the French actress’s faltering English accent, not to mention seeing an uncredited Sinead O’Connor narrating the story as Emily Brontë herself.

Effing Heights

A BBC Radio 3 adaptation put the f-word into the mouths of Cathy and Heathcliff to “capture the shock” that greeted the publication of the book (which had words crossed out in the original text because they were considered too strong).

Writer Jonathan Holloway declared: “What I wanted to elbow out is this idea that it’s the cosy greatest love story ever told – it’s not. For me Wuthering Heights is a story of violent obsession, and a tortuous unfulfilled relationship. This is not a Vaseline-lensed experience.”

Gone with the Howling Wind

HURLEVENTwhich translates as Howling Wind – was a 1985 French film adaptation of the first part of the novel, set in 1930s’ Southern France. Other adaptations have moved the story to Catholic Mexico, a California high school and medieval Japan. The book has also been an opera and a graphic novel.

Withering Looks

LIP Service, alias comedy duo Sue Ryding and York’s Maggie Fox, continue to perform their award-winning Brontë spoof Withering Looks on stages up and down the land. The show is described as “an authentic look at the lives and works of the Brontë sisters – well, two of them actually as Anne has just popped out for a cup of sugar”. 

Wise Children’s Wuthering Heights, a York Theatre Royal, National Theatre and Bristol Old Vic co-production with Emma Rice’s Wise Children, runs at York Theatre Royal from November 2 to 9. Box office: 01904 623568.

REVIEW: The Hound Of The Baskervilles, Original Theatre Company/Bolton Octagon Theatre, at York Theatre Royal, until 23/10

Double act: Niall Ransome’s Dr Watson and Jake Ferretti’s Sherlock Holmes shake up The Hound Of The Baskervilles

MYSTERY and murk have abounded in York Theatre Royal’s hit and mist Haunted Season.

That mist descends once more, over a desolate Dartmoor of spectral trees and a grand house, looming in the distance, where the lights seem to twitch nervously. Except, this time, the foggy haze is emanating from Sir Charles Baskerville’s newly lit cigar in the country air, his face matching the contentment of a bygone Hamlet advert.

A bewhiskered, elegantly dressed Serena Manteghi has entered David Woodhead’s nocturnal set in the first guise of a hatful of such roles – putting the ‘Man’ into Manteghi as it were – on a fright-night when she will be playing men only.

Just as we are appreciating her miming – with immaculate timing to the sound-effect accompaniment of the opening and closing of gates and striking of a match – suddenly a ghastly howl quickens the heart.

Taking on 20 roles? Bring it on, say Niall Ransome, Jake Ferretti and Serena Manteghi

A look of terror, a futile attempt to escape, and Sir Charles and his cigar have snuffed it.

So far, so scary, albeit in the exaggerated manner of a silent film, in a startling start where the titular hound is but a sound. Spooky, melodramatic, beyond immediate explanation: this is the perfect Conan Doyle recipe for the arrival of Holmes and Watson.

On bound Jake Ferretti’s superior Sherlock and Niall Ransome’s hearty doctor, promptly shattering theatre’s fourth wall as they demand applause for Serena’s miming, then introduce themselves and how the show will work.

Here comes the “howlarious” version of The Hound Of The Baskervilles penned in 2007 for comedy clowns Peepolykus by John Nicholson and Steven Canny and now, 150 productions down the line, picked up by Bolton Octagon Theatre artistic director Lotte Wakeham and the Original Theatre Company.

In the frame: Jake Ferretti, Niall Ransome and Serena Manteghi in The Hound Of The Baskervilles

It still carries its original health warning for “anyone suffering from a heart condition, a nervous disorder, low self-esteem or a general inability to tell fact from fiction”. In truth, the cast and indeed the characters are most at risk. The audience, by comparison, needs only sit back, laugh loudly and burst regularly into applause.

The facts are that Ferretti, Ransome and Manteghi must play 20 characters between them, multifarious accents et al. Isn’t the heir, Sir Henry Baskerville, supposed to be Canadian, Serena is asked. “Yes, but I can’t do that accent,” she replies.

In the original, the cast of three were all men and Holmes suddenly turned Spanish in the handsome form of Javier Marzan. Such is the strength yet flexibility of Canny and Nicholson’s format that we now have the added pleasure of watching Serena Manteghi as she deepens her voice, mirrors male movements and tropes, breaks out of character under emotional duress at the first act’s finale, and once more confirms what an outstanding talent this former University of York student is.

This time it is Ferretti’s Costa Rican Miss Stapleton who brings an Hispanic flourish to the production, directed crisply and crunchily for the tour by Tim Jackson.

Funny business: Niall Ransome’s Dr Watson, Serena Manteghi’s Sir Henry Baskerville and Jake Ferretti’s Sherlock Holmes make light of tackling the mystery

Comedy, yes, but send-up or spoof, no. Canny and Nicholson are true to Conan Doyle’s story, re-imagining scenes rather than inventing new ones, but always with the fourth wall in danger of needing new bricks again.

“We wanted to be as faithful as possible to the drama and intrigue of Conan Doyle’s masterpiece, while setting about discovering how to use a company of three actors to tell the story as inventively as we could,” said the writers.

“It became clear very quickly that simple props, rapid costume and scene changes, precision comic timing and a determined commitment to stupidity were going to play a significant part in our version.”

Think of the works of Lip Service’s Maggie Fox and Sue Ryding, Nobby Dimon’s North Country Theatre and Mikron Theatre, or Patrick Barlow’s “touching up” of John Buchan’s The 39 Steps, or Mischief’s The Play That Goes Wrong, as Ferretti, Ransome and Manteghi keep veering off the straight and narrow but somehow still reach their intended destination.

Niall Ransome’s Dr Watson has a blast in The Hound Of The Baskervilles

In this case, this is the art of making a drama out of staff-shortage crisis – how very 2021 – but not needing to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear because the source material is from the top drawer.

Canny and Nicholson have it right in saying the “determined commitment to stupidity” is crucial too: a characteristic that benefits from Ferretti’s Holmes, in particular, taking everything so seriously, or the pathos in Ransome’s even straighter-faced Watson having a propensity to draw his pistol on anyone and anything, especially woodland animals.

This peaks at the outset of the second act after a Tweet “complaint” from an audience member – it was a letter in the original! – about Holmes’s lack of commitment to solving the crime prompts Ferretti to demand the right to re-enact the entire first half. A breathless snapshot replay ensues.

Someone so bright acting so dumb and supercilious is but one of the delights of seeing the Holmes and Watson partnership being poked out of its comfort zone, a shift as rewarding in its comedic interplay as Morecambe and Wise’s jousting.

The Hound Of The Baskervilles goes barking mad in this amiably daft comedy, at the cost of Woman In Black or Jeremy Dyson and Andy Nyman’s Ghost Stories scares, but that sacrifice of bite is a price well worth paying. Howlarious indeed.

Performances: 7.30pm, plus 2.30pm Saturday matinee. Box office: 01904 623568 or at yorktheatreroyal.co.uk.

Review by Charles Hutchinson