The choreography is demanding, sure, but nothing more than necessary for sustaining the play’s madcap substanceMark Senior with permission for Varsity

The 39 Steps – that is, the stage version – is pretty difficult to do wrong. For those uninitiated: the hit spy caper, debuting in 2005, retools the 1935 Hitchcock film (itself adapted from the John Buchan novel) into a self-aware spoof with a cast of four and deliberately shoddy production values. Affable gent Richard Hannay (Tom Byrne) is framed for murder by a sinister global conspiracy and chased into the Scottish Highlands, accosted by three separate love interests (all played by the same actress, in this case Safeena Ladha) and two multi-roling ‘clowns’ (Eugene McCoy and Maddie Rice) who between them cover the rest of the play’s 100-plus characters, sometimes multiple to a scene. You can imagine the chaos that unfolds here – in both the plot and the act of putting it together.

“This is a show tightly choreographed to fly by the seat of its pants”

The cast spend none of the show’s 90 minutes in breath, wheeling out various props, costumes and set pieces with a knowing wink to the audience. When needs be, they play to the low budget and craft their own visual and sound effects, like the turbulence of a bumpy train ride, or the exaggerated rustling of the wind. Wigs, hats, jackets – even window frames! – exchange hands at the speed of light all around the stage: this is a show tightly choreographed to fly by the seat of its pants. Of course, the farce is superbly curated precisely because it needs to be. The choreography is demanding, sure, but nothing more than necessary for sustaining the play’s madcap substance. Anything less, especially from a professional team, and the show would crumble under the weight of its satirical exercise: it would be less The Play That Goes Wrong and more, well… a play that goes wrong. For a director, then, this must be both a challenge and a comfort: so long as you approach the production with the right kind of intense focus on choreographic detail (and how could a professional not?) then all the farce lands beautifully, and you’re in the clear.

Here, director Maria Aitken’s interpretation gets the green light. She’s helped by a pair of slick leads: Byrne plays the hapless Hannay as just a note less caustic then one of Blackadder’s incarnations, so that we’re never quite wishing for the Germans to do him in, while Ladha begins the play as an outlandish foreign spy (dispatched rather quickly, sadly) before returning as a humble Glaswegian farmer’s wife and, finally, the haughty Hitchcock blonde Pamela, handcuffed to Hannay for the play’s second half. Ladha distinguishes each of her heroines superbly, even bringing pathos at unexpected moments. I just wish her Pamela had matched Byrne’s pace and relish, a nag which becomes more apparent in their intimate scenes together, when you’re left wishing for them to bounce off one another just a little bit more – and for tighter synapses between the line deliveries.

“The cast spend none of the show’s 90 minutes in breath”

McCoy and Rice, playing every other character, are made on each occasion to curate different accents, personas and dynamics with one another. I imagine this kind of character work is both challenging and rewarding for a performer – it certainly pushes these two to the edge of their impressive capabilities (and, maybe just ever so occasionally, a little beyond). All in all, though, for a play that depends on the right acting assembly to succeed, these four do their casting director proud.

Really, the only creative choice that works against the show is the barren expanse of the stage, demarcated by a high brick wall. It’s a contrast to the play’s action which, being naturally clustered within a makeshift set, only takes up half the space. This show works because it’s supposed to feel cramped and ramshackle: hence it’s better suited to Fringe spaces over multi-storey venues like the Arts Theatre. But even adjusting for this inconvenient size would have been possible: couldn’t the canopy have been made a little lower, and the backdrop moved a little closer behind the actors? With so much empty space, I kept wondering what stopped the actors roaming around more – outside of the fact that the script doesn’t call for it.


Mountain View

Cloud Eight and a Half is straightforward fun

Beyond this, there was also the occasional flub. Mistakes are a deliberate part of the show, of course: there are chairs kicked onto the stage after polite coughs, and other nods to the extreme suspension of disbelief in demand here. But other mishaps – like a large sign crashing over mid-scene, or a piece of ladder-work losing its balance, or the occasional bungled line – seemed clearly unintentional. Even these, though, are easily subsumed into a play whose very tone flirts with its bare-bones construction. At any rate, don’t let it stop you buying a ticket: the odd mistake is natural for a touring production, one that inhabits different staging dimensions every week. And besides, it’s close enough to what the play’s going for anyway.

The 39 Steps is showing at the Cambridge Arts Theatre from Tuesday 7th to Saturday 11th May, at 7:30pm.