its The 39 Steps at the O'Reilly
Theatre, Inspired Productions has got away from John Buchan's original 1915
novel in favour of the Hitchcockian film treatment of 1935, and stretched the
time-line further by locating itself in the 1950s with song (Strangers in the Night was a leitmotif), jiving and quick-step, and
Director Antonia Hansen and her crew have crammed their smallish playing area with a pot-pourri of thriller, road – or rather train – movie, rollicking comedy and relaxed social satire that consistently thrills and stimulates. There's strong evidence of imaginative intelligence at every point of the staging: the players spill naturally into the audience space, up into the gallery and very effectively behind the illuminated backcloth. The design and deployment by Matilda Granger and assistants of stage props - ladder, piles of crates, signs of all sorts - together with super-slick scene changes, were, bar none, the most professional I've seen on a student stage.
The direction of the actors by Antonia Hansen was subtly managed, and her attention to detail in aspects great and small of the production was remarkable. The early murder shock, the choice of a luridly-covered copy of The 39 Steps as Pamela's reading material aboard the train, Mozart's Requiem quietly playing while the crofter said grace, the complex, prolonged byplay with handcuffs, the staging of Hannay's blustering soliloquy at the political meeting, even the tiny snatch of birdsong when our reluctant couple woke up in their hotel room; all these things and a dozen others betokened detailed, collaborative planning. The lighting design by Seb Dows-Miller, amusingly improvised costumes (Francesca Salisbury), evocative sound effects – all added gold-plated value. If the pace slowed a bit after the interval, and the hotel bedroom scene could have been cut by five minutes, these are minor blemishes, and in any case derive from Patrick Barlow's adaptation.
Benedict Turvill, whom I last saw in A Winter's Tale as Polixenes and before that in Julius Caesar, as Richard Hannay put on a performance of almost heroic quality in a dual sense; ever-present on stage, he carried off perfectly the dichotomy of, on the one hand, every inch the suave gent attempting to lord it over clodhopping policemen and fend off boorish train travellers, while simultaneously portraying an everyman caught up in events beyond his control and his wildest dreams. This is in the true traditions of farce where normal logic and sense are trumped by zany happenstance, and transformed into a kind of formulaic logic and sense operating to different rules. Mr Turvill's energy, both artistic and purely physical, was remarkable, the concentration he put into his reaction acting intense, and his command of his daft repartee was a delight:
"The Commissioner of Police is my Uncle Bob!"
"Oh, Bob's your uncle?"
The other four players backed up Mr Turvill to the hilt by the zest with which they grabbed their juicy multi-roles and ran with them. Miranda Mackay directed an excellent Henry IV pt. I back in May 2017, and here she was, among other roles, now a stickily-ending agent with convincing Mittel-European accent, now a vocally-challenged political meeting organizer. Carlo QC wheedled and squawked in the most extreme Scottish accent to be found lurking in the glens both south and north of Drumnadrochit, when he wasn't a bra-toting salesman aboard the Edinburgh Express, or the cross-gender, slinky wife of a dodgy Scottish gentleman. Jon Berry, who was the best thing about last term's Three Parallel Places, joined his colleague in switching on a sixpence, sometimes in mid-speech, between braying music hall barker, bumbling constable and obsequious hotelier.
The precision of complicated movement, often in a tiny space, was extraordinary, especially given the short rehearsal time. As Pamela, the often bewildered and put-upon object of Hannay's convenience and desire, Teddy Briggs was early on a little stiff in voice and posture in this tricky part where she's often called upon to react to the madness of others, but later she began to move and emote more freely. Given the way she came on strongly at the end, she will for sure gain confidence as the week's shows roll on.
The 39 Steps is an intriguing venture for a student production – apparently small in scale, yet actually super-ambitious in the challenges it takes on and triumphantly surmounts. It has no axe to grind, serves up great dollops of pure fun, and demands to be seen.