All photography: Lizzie Lam.
Let’s be honest, we could all use a dose of fun right about now. And fun is definitely on offer in this witty, silly, frenetic production of The 39 Steps currently on at Shinfield Players Theatre.
Patrick Barlow’s fast-moving comedy is a parody of the Hitchcock espionage thriller. In 100 high-energy minutes, four dedicated amateur actors take on over 130 characters in 33 scenes set across 50 locations.
Mark Read is rakish and charming as Richard Hannay – all wavy blond hair, clipped BBC radio anchor voice and a dashing pencil moustache. Recently returned to London from colonial Canada, Richard is jaded and on the lookout for adventure when he crosses paths with mysterious, sleek-bobbed spy Annabella Schmidt (the elegant, enigmatic Lydia van Walsem Vas Nunes). He soon finds himself on the run across the Scottish Highlands, picking up women, false identities and spy networks along the way.
It’s clear the whole cast are having a riot clowning about with accents, gender swaps, wigs and makeshift props, and it’s infectious. Given they’re all on stage for almost the whole 100 minutes, the energy in some of the more dramatic scenes falls a bit flatter than the pure comedy set pieces. But all four actors keep their sense of fun, with a strong sense of physical comedy and timing, causing our audience to laugh throughout.
Lydia van Walsem Vas Nunes switches from mystery to tenderness in her three romantic leads – from trembling as the crofter’s wife to bold and curious as Pamela.
The two remaining cast members take on the role of ‘clowns’ moving through the rest of the 100-odd characters like a flip book.
From a busty B&B owner to the Blofeld-esque Professor Jordan, Ian Head slips seamlessly from one comic gem to another. Likewise, Sam Bessant throws herself into every role, particularly those with the gruff Scottish Highland accent. Her various characters – an underwear salesman on a train, policeman, farmer and multiple doddery old men – are all the more funny for how seriously they take themselves.
Director Adam H Wells has put forward an innovative, technically ambitious production, which sees scenes spin in front of us like a carousel. It’s rare for me to praise the stage hands in a theatre production, but here it’s almost a requirement. While there’s only four actors on stage, there’s a large slickly-choreographed backstage crew who keep all the scenes moving at a rapid clip.
The barebones set of leather trunks and chairs is seemingly all on wheels (even if it actually isn’t), shifting smoothly from one scene to the next with remarkable speed and creativity. Playful additions, such as props getting thrown in from the wings, town name signs appearing as if by magic, cars made up from chairs and window frames being held in the air all add to the make-do-and-mend toybox feel of the whole production.
There’s also a splendid use of shadow puppetry to show us locations and scenes too complicated to present with only four actors – although the view of that famous scene on the Fourth Bridge slipped from view too quickly for our audience to really catch the intricate detail undertaken by the set design team.
The 39 Steps is a ludicrous commotion of a production, full of laughs, creativity, wit and glee. Go and be swept along in the silliness and you’ll leave smiling.
The 39 Steps is at Shinfield Players Theatre, Whitley Wood Lane, until Saturday 23 March. Tickets are £12, buy online.
Hello! I'm Claire, the founding editor of Explore Reading. I'm a Reading native and former digital director of Time Out Shanghai. I founded Explore Reading so no one can say, ‘there’s nothing to do in Reading’, again. When not editing Explore Reading, I'm probably drinking a Manhattan.