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.”

Everything is right for The Play That Goes Wrong to go wronger for a bit longer on next week’s return to Grand Opera House

What could possibly go wrong? Cue the chaos, calamities, crises and catastrophes of Mischief’s The Play That Goes Wrong, returning to the Grand Opera House, York, from September 28. Picture: Robert Day

THE Play That Goes Wrong keeps getting it right, an Olivier Award winner from the Mischief makers that has chalked up productions across every continent, aside from being given the cold shoulder by Antarctica.

The West End’s longest-running comedy is spreading chaos and calamity across the Duchess Theatre for a seventh year and the fourth major British tour brings the show back to the Grand Opera House, York, from Tuesday after an earlier run there on tour number three in May 2018.

For those yet to encounter the thrills, spills and comedy mayhem of The Play That Goes Wrong, how would co-writer Jonathan Sayer sum it up? “It’s a comedy all about a drama university group who are putting on a play and everything that could possibly go wrong…goes wrong,” he says. “There’s a big cast, there’s lots of jokes and it pretty much does what it says on the tin.

“The three writers [artistic director Henry Lewis, company director Sayer and Henry Shields] have all worked in theatre and have experiences of things going awry in shows we’ve been in.

“Some of my favourite moments watching theatre have been where things have gone dreadfully wrong and the actors are forced to deal with the mistake and try to keep the show on track. 

“On top of that, a huge influence for us is Michael Green, who wrote The Art Of Coarse Acting and actually taught Henry Lewis at youth theatre. Then there’s a huge amount of physical comedy, which is definitely a nod to Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton.” 

Mischief began in 2008 as a group that specialised in improvised comedy in London and Edinburgh but now creates new comedy for theatre, such as Magic That Goes Wrong, on tour at Leeds Grand Theatre earlier this month, and for television, with the new six-part series of The Goes Wrong Show beginning on BBC One on September 27.

“We created the script for The Play That Goes Wrong when the three of us were living together in a pretty run-down flat in Gunnersbury,” says Jonathan. “We were all working in bars and call centres and restaurants, and in the evenings we’d come home and we’d write until the early hours.

“There’s a huge amount of physical comedy, which is definitely a nod to Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton,” says The Play That Goes Wrong co-writer Jonathan Sayer. Picture: Robert Day

“The initial script took about a month to put together and we then workshopped the script with the rest of the Mischief team. Everyone’s done a lot of improv, so we try and take those principles into the writing room and into rehearsal where, if someone has an idea, you accept it and you build on it.”

From playing to 60 people in pub theatres, Mischief have gone on to take productions to 35 countries, none more successfully than The Play That Goes Wrong.

Back for a second tour of bumps and bruises is Huddersfield actor Gabriel Paul, last seen in York in 2018 playing Trevor, the sound engineer pressed into an emergency role on stage.

“There’s just me from the 2018 tour among the 2021 principals, but all eight of us have been in the principal cast on a previous tour, so we’re like the Avengers being reassembled as they needed people to do it who were already familiar with the challenges involved, all up to speed, because of the Covid situation,” he says.

“It was my agent who first put me up for an audition in November 2017 – when I was really embarrassed because I didn’t know anything about the show at all! – and that process involved a lot of improvisation because the director and writers had devised the show around a lot of improvising.

“Initially I auditioned on my own but I ended up doing five auditions, going down to London from Huddersfield each time. They don’t mess about! They really put you through your paces as they want to see how you work with other actors.”

Teamwork is vital, as Gabriel has found on tour in 2018 and 2021 and in the West End in 2019. “One hundred per cent that’s the case. There’s a certain skill in trying to make things look bad or that they’re going wrong, and you have to really be in tune with your fellow actors because otherwise you could get hurt if things go even more wrong than the title would suggest!” he says.

“Being a physical show, it’s not just the stunts we do, but there are strains you can get, so we do group physiotherapy sessions with Carl Heaton, a sports physiotherapist from Manchester, once a month.”

The fourth tour should have run from December 2020 to April 2021 but after the opening day’s two shows, Lockdown 3 put paid to those dates. Instead, Gabriel and co have been on the road since July 13, relishing a return to playing to audiences.

Gabriel Paul reprising his role as sound engineer Trevor in The Play That Goes Wrong, now “going wronger for a little bit longer”. Picture: Robert Day

“We have a saying, because there are 12 characters, we always say the 13th character is Nigel Hook’s award-winning set, but the 14th character is the audience because we do encourage them to participate and even to call out sometimes,” he says.

“It’s the audience’s reaction that I most enjoy about this show; being in a room where you hear people crying with laughter. Hearing that joy all around the country is wonderful.

“I’ve done plays with heavy subject matters  and they’re important to do, but it’s great to hear laughter again after the 18 months we’ve had.”

Comedy or tragedy, serious or light, Gabriel has enjoyed myriad stage roles, whether in Northern Broadsides’ Quality Street, The Queen Of Chapeltown at Leeds Playhouse, Bouncers for Esk Valley Theatre or Othello for Demi-paradise Productions.

“I wish I was in that position of being able to choose roles, but that’s not the reality, but I’ve had the chance to work with fantastic people in fantastic shows,” he says. “I like to do something funny or something conversational, like Everything I Own, the Daniel Ward play I did when Hull Truck Theatre reopened in June with a trio of monologues.

“It was about Errol, a man of Jamaican descent, who grew up in Hull and has just lost his father to Covid. He’s organising his father’s house, and it’s a play with universal themes about loss and grief, fathers and sons, family stories and a love of music.”

Now, “having hoped he had done enough never be asked back, Gabriel is contractually obliged to say he’s extremely honoured to be reprising the role of Trevor and getting the chance to go wronger for a little bit longer”, or so his The Play That Goes Wrong biog jokingly says.

The truth is, half way through a tour that runs until the end of November, Gabriel is loving every minute of being in the Wrong place at the right time again.

Mischief present The Play That Goes Wrong, Grand Opera House, York, September 28 to October 3, 7.30pm and 2.30pm, Saturday and Sunday matinees. Box office: 0844 871 7615 or at atgtickets.com/York.

Copyright of The Press, York

Gabriel Paul playing Errol in Daniel Ward’s monologue Everything I Own at Hull Truck Theatre this summer