Tonight I watched Huddersfield Thespians’ performance of the famous The 39 Steps at the Lawrence Batley Theatre. The show is a classic melodrama which has won both the Olivier and What's On Stage award for Best Comedy, and I am glad to report the comedy certainly wasn’t lost in the performance this evening. The cast only consisted of four principals playing 130 different characters in this chaotic comedy thriller, and the actors within Huddersfield Thespians truly gave every ounce of effort and energy to play each and every role to the best of their abilities.
This particular version of The 39 Steps was re-written by Patrick Barlow in 2005, taking influence from the original 1915 novel by John Buchan and Alfred Hitchcock’s famous 1935 film, both of the same name. The plot follows ‘the hero’ Richard Hannay’s (Hugh Raine) desperate search to uncover the truth about a spy organisation and the mysterious 39 steps! The production definitely had a small scale feel to it, ensuring the many elaborate characters stole full focus from the audience. The fumbling, clumsy nature of the comedy was portrayed extremely well by all four actors, with me often not knowing which fumbles were purposeful and which were accidental, either both providing laughs and enjoyment for the audience.
Raine was likeable from the moment the curtains opened, sat there in his chair with a big pipe and heroic grin on his face. His character of Richard Hannay was the only continual within the script, but Raine’s performance often stole my attention over the more obscure characters. The strongest element within his performance was by far his physical exaggeration and precision of movement. This perfectly suited the melodramatic style of the play, and Raine didn’t break role once on stage, with his background acting just as engaging as his starring moments. The train escape sequence with the police officer (Laura Womersley) was particularly clever and very well executed. Raine often reacted to the chaos around him with comical, bewildered facial expressions which made his role very relatable for the audience.
Hannah Head played the numerous heroines throughout the play, often getting caught up in the complicated situations around Richard Hannay. Raine and Head managed to adapt their chemistry appropriately for each pairing, from the European spy to the hopeless Scottish wife. Alex Watkins and Laura Womersley had the challenge of creating the other 120 something characters within this spy thriller, and their performance was chaotic to watch, in the perfect way. Their vocal and physical performances were adapted for each set of characters, with the highlight of their performance being the numerous roles they portrayed on the train journey. Jumping back and forth between underwear sellers, newspaper boys and police officers, the two actors showed excellent commitment and vitality for each role.
Even though the cast only consisted of four actors you can’t ignore the efforts of the staging team who also made guest appearances, adding to the clumsy and comedic nature of the text (with the moving window frames as my personal favourite). Alistair Cheetham had a very tough job directing this performance, with the regular scenery, props and character changes. The lighting was very well designed to draw the audience’s focus to the correct moment, including when the actors were immersed within the audience, which I feel was a very clever directorial decision. It was often hard to tell if the slightly quiet, recorded sound elements to the production were out of time deliberately, but either way the actor’s responses to these ‘mistakes’ simply added to the fun and farce of the whole performance. The entire company of Huddersfield Thespians have clearly worked extremely hard on this challenging and complicated production, and they certainly achieved the primary aim of this turbulent narrative, and that was to simply make us laugh.
Reviewed: 8th June 2016
Reviewer: Christine-Jane Parkes