It’s rare to be part of an audience entirely attuned to the rhythm of a performance.

I had the fortunate experience to be part of such an audience when I saw the rip-roaring semi-spoof that is The 39 Steps at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough. As I entered the bright foyer there was already a buzz about the place; I don’t think I’ve ever seen the SJT as full. In fact, the production had sold out with nary room to squeeze between the bodies of those who had come to be entertained. And wow, were we entertained.

I was exhausted just watching the incredible adaptation with its quick-thinking step change and multiple opportunities for something to go wrong, or a performer to be wrong footed. But let me tell you, even if something had gone wrong, it was the sort of performance in which it would have merged beautifully into the play itself, such was the feeling of friendly fly-by-pants performance that can only be achieved by intense practice and rehearsal.

It is deceptively silly; the skill, like any comedy, is in pretending there is no skill at all. The performance skipped, highland fling-style, across the crossed swords of a 1930s parlour game – a Christmas charades-style buffoonery and a highly skilled clowning slapstick, underpinned by a genuinely endearing love/crime/spy thriller, all performed by four intensely energetic actors speaking cut-glass RP English with the odd, phenomenal Scottish accent.

The story, written by John Buchan in 1915 and adapted into the film that launched director Alfred Hitchcock’s career in 1934, tells the tale of handsomely pencil-moustachioed Richard Hannay, played by Sam Jenkins-Shaw, who becomes caught up in an espionage ring via femme fatale Annabella Schmidt, played by the perfectly timed and beautifully elegant Amelia Donkor. A murder follows as well as a police chase of epic proportions including trains, planes (look out for incredible special effects for the plane crash) and a whirlwind of hat swapping, costume changing, laugh-out-loud-funny japes.

It’s all too easy to dismiss such genuine entertainment and marginalise it because it isn’t taking itself seriously but,when the world appears to be burning down around us, this is exactly the sort of thing that people love to see. Comedy, and in particular this style of semi-slapstick wonderfully choreographed comedy, is a skill that few possess. Laura Kirman and Niall Ransome were incredible as the scaffolding of the production, playing roughly 40 hilarious parts between them in a feat of comedy acting. The ferociously talented group were able to carry the audience along as if they themselves were jumping off bridges and climbing through windows. In fact, as a production in the round, a number of the front seat audience members became props in the play.

Half-way through I looked around at the mix of people in the audience and realised that every face was smiling, happy to be embroiled in the nonsense. Listening to people chatting as they left the plushly-lit beautiful new SJT foyer and walked out into the Scarborough sea fret, all I heard were positive comments. 

By Wendy Pratt

Photos by Sam Taylor

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The 39 Steps is on until August 23, 2018. For more information, click here