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.”

‘When I set out to perform, I always wanted to make my mother laugh and smile,’ says Aran MacRae as The 39 Steps opens

Aran MacRae’s Richard Hannay: A man contemplating a boring life at the outset of The 39 Steps. Picture: John Saunders

YORK actor, singer, songwriter, self-taught guitarist and percussion player Aran MacRae is playing his first lead role since returning to his home city in March 2019.

From tonight, he takes centre stage as Richard Hannay, “the man with a boring life”, in York Settlement Community Players’ production of Patrick Barlow’s West End hit comedy thriller The 39 Steps at Theatre@41, Monkgate.

Whereas Aran was breaking in a new character when he originated  the role of 14-year-old Tink in the West End premiere of Jim Steinman and Meat Loaf’s musical Bat Out Of Hell at the London Coliseum in 2017, Hannay has history aplenty on stage and screen.

Aran has broken with his previous practice, however, when preparing to play Hannay, whose state of torpor changes when he encounters a woman with a thick accent at a theatre who says she is a spy. He agrees to take her home, whereupon she is murdered, and soon a mysterious organisation called The 39 Steps is hot on Hannay’s trail in a nationwide manhunt that climaxes in a death-defying finale.

“This is the first project where I haven’t looked at any previous material, and that’s partly because I want the character to come from me,” says Aran.

Wanted by the police: Aran MacRae’s Richard Hannay, whose his face splashed on the front of the papers

“I’ve truly learned what it takes to become a proper, conscious working actor during this project, with all the highs and lows that come with that, so I’ve been inspired not just by the play, its timeless appeal and the traditional values the British have, one of which is how ridiculous we are, but also by the cast and by the director, Harri Marshall, who is brash in such a way that it’s so intelligent. She’s a superhero, she really is.”

Aran has given Richard Hannay his own back story, beyond that description of a “man with a boring life”, one rooted in Hannay’s war experiences. “The trauma of war in Hannay’s time contrasts with how lucky I am to have been born in a country where we’ve not had to experience that, and we take it for granted, whereas across the world, wars and conflicts still happen,” he says.

“That’s something I realise as a millennial. It’s really pushed me to the edge of thinking about things, in the cause of going close to the edge of distress, but in doing so I’m showing my passion for the people, which is a great passion I have as an actor,” he says.

“When I set out to perform, I always wanted to make my mother laugh and smile, and then I realised that if I’m going to make everyone laugh, I’m going to have to learn a lot – and I’m still learning.”

Hannay is driven by a desire for truth, for knowledge, says Aran. “It’s that ancient thing of the human spirit, the curiosity to bite the apple; it’s something that powers him on,” he notes.

Arms and the man: Aran MacRae in rehearsal for York Settlement Community Players’ The 39 Steps. Picture: John Saunders

In his own desire to reach that point in his performance, Aran has applied a technique he learnt from York, Leeds and Bradford drama teacher Matt Zina. “I sought him out for some acting classes a little while ago, and he talked about the ‘Seven Levels of Why’,” he reveals.

How does it work? “I realised that Hannay is searching for knowledge and truth, and then I asked the question ‘Why?’. The answer I arrived at is that Hannay wants to keep the peace, and then, at the end, when he’s kept the peace and found the truth, he gets the opportunity to be in love,” says Aran. “Maybe it comes by chance, but that’s the beauty of love.

“I set myself a super-objective with each piece I do, and there were many I could have set with this play because it demands that I make many decisions. I question ‘why?’ seven times, so by the time I go on stage, all that questioning is in my body and it all goes on stage with me. That means, if I have a moment of doubt, I remember my super-objective.”

Aran continues: “With each role, I’m trying to learn if I’m an actor-performer as an individual or as part of a collective, and that depends on the style of performance you’re doing” he says. “If it’s television, it’s about the individual, but with theatre, it’s collective: it’s like when birds take off together, you see them flying in formation, and then they move within that formation. It’s almost like a dance.”

Aran, who trained in musical theatre for three years at the Guildford School of Acting and built momentum in his career in the West End, on tour and overseas, is part of Harri Marshall’s cast of eight tasked with the breath-taking challenge of combining John Buchan’s 1915 novel with Alfred Hitchcock’s 1935 film scenes in a blend of virtuoso performances and wildly inventive stagecraft.

Aran MacRae’s Hannay and Sanna Buck’s Arabella in a scene from the Settlement Players’ The 39 Steps. Picture: John Saunders

He is playing Richard Hannay opposite Sanna Buck in three parts and Stephen Wright, Andrew Isherwood, Jim Paterson, Matt Pattison, Matt Lomax and Daniel Boyle handling the rest of the 150 characters in the guise of The Clowns.

“Sanna is the most supportive actor to play opposite, and I couldn’t have done it without her,” says Aran. “The support and listening ear she has offered me has been priceless. The spirit she has shown during rehearsals has pulled me close to being a better actor and a better human being.

“All the rest of the cast are gentlemen and scholars, and again, the love for theatre and the support we have shown each other, when coming back to theatre and coming back to social interaction, with all the changes that have gone on, has been fantastic.

“One thing I’ve noticed is our desire to be happy, to have a laugh – though my personal thing is to create a feeling of peace with that lovely cool-down after all the laughter, but that doesn’t mean the clowns should be in charge!”

The pursuit of laughter is all important in Barlow’s version of The 39 Steps, but so is the authenticity of characterisation, not least in Hannay’s military disposition.

Handcuffed: Aran MacRae’s Richard Hannay at a loose end in The 39 Steps. Picture: John Saunders

“I’ve used YouTube for a really useful video on the ‘Attention’ and ‘At Ease’ positions, watching soldiers on parade, and I also visited Elvington Airfield a couple of time, talking to people around the air base, and studying planes,” says Aran.

“I’ve also done some movement to music, working to the soundtrack from The Good, The Bad And The Ugly and Thin Lizzy’s The Boys Are Back In Town. Music, as I’m still learning, is a great healer and has the ability to take you back in time, so it’s a very useful tool for an actor to use.

“For Hannay’s accent, I was very lucky to have had good training at Guildford [School of Acting], where I had this amazing teacher, Chris Palmer, who taught me Received Pronunciation, so I have a good grounding in that accent.

“Overall, the performance comes down to the body, the mind and the voice; they are the three crucial things to study when you’re developing a character. But I’ve also realised that an actor is like a  magician, because we don’t want to show you the rabbit in the hat, revealing our secrets.”

Amid all the seriousness within this analysis of the art of performance, Aran smiles at the thought that these discussions are in the cause of a comedy being funny.

“He had this brilliant playfulness, balanced against being earnest when required,” says director Harri Marshall, recalling Aran MacRae’s audition

“The script is genius,” he says. “The lines are so funny, it could work just as a radio play, but then you add the physicality and the awareness of the need to be able to laugh at yourself  and to connect with that on stage,” he says.

Aran is an advocate of thinking on your feet as an actor when performing in a comedy. “Instinct! That’s where a lot of comedy comes from,” he says. “The ability to see something that might hurt and then finding something funny in it.

“Comedy makes us question ourselves, which is something we’ve all been doing in the pandemic, when other people keep you going through these moments. Family and a good cup of tea.”

Instinct applies not only to comedy but to casting too, hence the last word will go to Harri Marshall, as she explains her choice of Aran for Richard Hannay. “As soon as he walked in the room for the audition, I knew he’d be perfect,” she says. ”He had this brilliant playfulness, balanced against being earnest when required, and he always wanted to discover and apply new ideas and methods of doing things.”

York Settlement Community Players present John Buchan and Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps, tonight and tomorrow, 7.30pm; Saturday, 2.30pm, 7.30pm; Sunday, 2.30pm. Box office: tickets.41monkgate.co.uk.

Director Harri Marshall overjoyed as York Settlement Community Players return at last with The 39 Steps comedy thriller

Aran MacRae and Sanna Buck in rehearsal for York Settlement Community Players’ production of The 39 Steps. Picture: John Saunders

PATRICK Barlow’s riotous West End comedy hit The 39 Steps marks York Settlement Community Players’ return to live performance for the first time since March 2020.

Harri Marshall’s cast of eight takes to the John Cooper Studio stage at Theatre@41, Monkgate, York, from November 11 to 14.

“For the past 18 months, the UK feels like it’s lost its theatrical mojo, which is why I’m so excited to bring this light, wickedly funny play to Theatre@41 to share in the love and laughter and to showcase some brilliantly inventive theatre,” says Harri, who previously directed the Settlement Players in Hans Christian Andersen’s The Red Shoes at the Monkgate theatre in October 2019.

Settlement last trod the boards early last year, presenting Helen Wilson’s production of Chekhov’s The Seagull a week before the first pandemic lockdown locked in, since when the York company has hosted play readings and social meet-ups online.

Now, at last, Settlement’s players can breathe in stage air once more as they take on the breath-taking challenge of performing a two-time Tony and Drama Desk Award-winning comedy thriller that seeks to combine John Buchan’s 1915 novel, The Thirty-Nine Steps, with Alfred Hitchcock’s 1935 film, The 39 Steps, in a blend of virtuoso performance and wildly inventive stagecraft.

More than 150 characters must make an appearance as Marshall’s cast re-create both the book and film scenes, telling the story of Richard Hannay, a man with a boring life, who encounters a woman with a thick accent who says she’s a spy. When he takes her home, she is murdered. Soon, a mysterious organisation called The 39 Steps is hot on Hannay’s trail in a nationwide manhunt that climaxes in a death-defying finale.

Aran MacRae as Richard Hannay: “As soon as he walked in the room I knew he’d be perfect,” says director Harri Marshall. Picture: John Saunders

“Rehearsals are going very well,” says Harri, who identifies as a deaf director. “We started at the deep end, plunging into the logistics of how to re-create those fabulous iconic scenes that make The 39 Steps famous when it debuted on the West End.

“This includes re-creating chase sequences on board the Flying Scotsman and a live on-stage plane crash! I’m very lucky to be working with such a talented cast. Every single performer is a brilliant star in their own right. Their collective repertoire includes credits at the London Coliseum, York Theatre Royal, York Light Opera, the York Mystery Plays, Pick Me Up Theatre and Settlement shows such as The Cherry Orchard and The Red Shoes.”

Aran MacRae, who has returned to York after West End, national tour and overseas professional roles, will play Richard Hannay; Sanna Buck will split herself in three as Annabella Schmidt, Pamela and Margaret; Stephen Wright, Andrew Isherwood, Jim Paterson, Matt Pattison, Matt Lomax and Daniel Boyle will handle the remaining roles between them in the guise of The Clowns.”

Harri was attracted to directing The 39 Steps in this crazy comic caper format – adapted by Barlow from an original concept by Simon Corble and North Country Theatre founder Nobby Dimon – by “the challenge of the play and how it could entertain an audience, drawing them back to the theatre after the venues have been shut for so long”.

“I really wanted to sink my teeth into something where my approach was a wild ‘how an earth do I do this?’. So many of the iconic scenes that make it well loved are insane for any director to choreograph and work through,” she says.

“I didn’t want to shy away from stretching my imagination and creativity. I also saw it as an opportunity for performers to flex their skill in the form of multi-role playing and working as disciplined ensemble. It’s the ultimate play that everyone can enjoy and revel in!”

Director Harri Marshall

Faced with staging a fast-moving piece with regular changes of location, Harri has settled on a design as relaxed it can be within Covid restrictions. “It was important to me to ensure that the audience and performers could feel relaxed at all times,” she says.

“This is why we’re going for a cabaret-style set-up, ensuring people are welcome to come and go as they please, get drinks from the bar whenever they like, and the performers can really interact and play with the space.

“It’s so fast paced that massive sets just weren’t going to work. Our performance will be a rollercoaster of activity that I have no doubt the audience are just going to love! “

To pull off this whodunit, with its multitude of characters, a plane crash, handcuffs, missing fingers and old-fashioned romance, Barlow’s “needs-must” style of comedy in the face of adversity requires completely straight faces from the actors. “That’s easier said than done!” says Harri. “There’s definitely going to be a lot of hidden smiles and giggles. In rehearsal this is one of my biggest notes ‘to not corpse’!

“The cast are just so playful and entertaining, it’s hard not to be swept up in the comedy of it all. They’re gradually getting there. The more we rehearse, the more everyone gets better at staying blank-faced. Although I do think this is half the joy of doing a comedy performance, if the cast and crew are having great fun and the audience can feel that everyone is going to have an excellent time.”

Have Buchan’s juicy spy novel and Hitchcock’s thriller been important research tools for Harri? “The novel not so much, but the film certainly, to find how the thriller elements of the play can be transcribed to the performance,” she says.

Squeezing out every inch of humour: Aran MacRae’s Richard Hannay and Matthew Lomax’s Clown rehearsing a scene from The 39 Steps. Picture: John Saunders

“My biggest research tool was having the privilege to chat to Simon Corble, one of the writers of the original stage adaptation. I took on a lot of Simon’s advice and, in a lot of ways, our version has ended up nodding to the original performance that was done before the show took to the West End in Patrick’s version. Elements such as focusing on the storytelling, the ensemble and how less can be more in terms of set, lighting and sound.

“In its original form, this play was meant to tour regionally to studio spaces, so it feels very much like a homecoming for The 39 Steps to be staged at Theatre@41.”

Further research tools involved making set and props to enable Harri and her cast to learn to play with objects so that they could have multiple purposes. “That way we could really stretch the parameters creatively to discover what worlds we could build within the play,” she says.

“The performance itself should be an adventure, a challenge, and a lot of fun for both the cast and myself, and we’ve certainly had fun in the last couple of months bringing this play to life.”

As the director, Harri must achieve the balance between the comedy and the thriller elements. “You have to find those human moments within the play that can get your heart racing or that will make you lean forward in your seat. Where the audience are desperate to listen and discover the secrets of The 39 Steps,” she says.

“It’s wonderful, once we’ve found those moments, to tease the audience into believing they know what’s going on and then subverting expectation. Balancing it against the comedy is certainly no easy task; it takes careful timing, pace and energy.”

Matthew Lomax, left, Jim Patterson and a stuffed cat in the rehearsal room. Picture: John Saunders

The lead role goes to actor, singer, songwriter and musician Aran MacRae, who made a low-key return to the York stage as a sonneteer in York Shakespeare Project’s Sonnets At The Bar at the Bar Convent Living Heritage Centre in July, but now steps centre stage once more.

“I’d heard about Aran when he was playing Tink in the Bat Out Of Hell tour, so I was delighted to know that he wanted to audition,” says Harri. “It was one of those cheesy moments when I just knew, because as soon as he walked in the room I knew he’d be perfect.

“This was confirmed during his audition: he had this brilliant playfulness, balanced against being earnest when required, and he always wanted to discover and apply new ideas and methods of doing things. Aran, as with the rest of the cast, is so so talented and as a director it’s been a dream to work with them all.”

York Settlement Community Players present John Buchan and Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps, November 11 to 14; 7.30pm, Thursday and Friday; 2.30pm, 7.30pm, Saturday; 2.30pm, Sunday. Box office: tickets.41monkgate.co.uk.

Please note, all performances will be captioned via the Difference Engine from Talking Birds (with captions delivered to audience members’ own mobile devices via a free app).

Sanna Buck, Stephen Wright and Aran MacRae look on as a prone Daniel Boyle takes centre stage in the rehearsal room. Picture: John Saunders

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

Settlement Players to return from pandemic hiatus with high-wire comedy The 39 Steps at Theatre@41 Monkgate

Harri Marshall: Directing York Settlement Community Players’ production of The 39 Steps

YORK Settlement Community Players return from lockdown mothballing with Harri Marshall’s production of The 39 Steps at Theatre@41 Monkgate, York, from November 11 to 14.

Patrick Barlow’s two-time Tony and Drama Desk Award-winning comedy thriller – a hit in the West End, on Broadway and on multiple tours – asks the cast to play more than 150 characters in recreating an against-the-odds combination of both John Buchan’s 1915 novel and Alfred Hitchcock’s 1935 film.

The task is to tell the fast-moving story of Richard Hannay, a man with a boring life, who meets a woman with a thick foreign accent who claims to be a spy. When he takes her home, she is murdered.

Soon, a mysterious organisation called “The 39 Steps” is hot on the man’s trail in a nationwide hunt that climaxes in a death-defying finale in Barlow’s adaptation, based on an original concept by North Country Theatre’s Nobby Dimon and Simon Corble.

Aran MacRae: Cast as Richard Hannay in the Settlement Players’ The 39 Steps

Aran MacRae, a professional actor who returned home to York in lockdown after working on the London musical theatre stage and on tour overseas, will play Richard Hannay, fresh from Aran being one of the sonneteers for York Shakespeare Project’s Sonnets At The Bar 2021.

Sanna Buck will take the roles of Annabella Schmidt, Pamela and Margaret, while Stephen Wright, Andrew Isherwood, Jim Paterson, Matt Pattison, Matt Lomax and Dan Boyle will be The Clowns, whereas normally they are played by only two actors rushing around frantically trying to do most of the 150-plus characters.

York Settlement Community Players’ last live theatre production was Chekhov’s The Seagull at York Theatre Royal Studio in March 2020, when the run ended a week before the theatre went dark for the first pandemic lockdown. Since then, the company has hosted play readings and social meet-ups online.

Benedict Turvill’s troubled playwright Konstantin and The Seagull of the title in York Settlement Community Players’ last stage production at the York Theatre Royal Studio in March 2020. Picture: John Saunders

The 39 Steps will be Harri Mashall’s second production for YSCP, after directing Nanci Harris’s adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Red Shoes at Theatre@41 in the autumn of 2019.

“For the past eighteen months, the UK feels like it’s lost its theatrical mojo, which is why I’m excited to bring this light, wickedly funny play to Theatre@41 to share in the love and laughter and to showcase some brilliantly inventive theatre,” says Harri, who identifies as a deaf director.

“Rehearsals are going very well; we started at the deep end, plunging into the logistics of how to re-create those fabulous iconic scenes that made The 39 Steps famous when it debuted on the West End.

Playwright Patrick Barlow

“This includes re-creating chase sequences on board the Flying Scotsman and a live on-stage plane crash.”

Harri adds: “I’m very lucky to be working with such a talented cast. Every single performer is a brilliant star in their own right. Their collective repertoire includes credits at the London Coliseum, York Theatre Royal, York Light Opera, the York Mystery Plays, Pick Me Up Theatre and previous successful York Settlement Community Players’ shows, such as The Cherry Orchard and The Red Shoes.”

This amateur production of The 39 Steps is presented by arrangement with Concord Theatricals Ltd on behalf of Samuel French Ltd.

Tickets for the 7.30pm evening shows and 2.30pm Saturday and Sunday matinees in the John Cooper Studio are on sale at tickets.41monkgate.co.uk.

The poster artwork for York Settlement Community Players’ The 39 Steps