By Gillian Tunley and Brenda Sandilands.
The Shinfield Players Theatre are presenting John Buchan’s and Alfred Hitchcock’s classic thriller The 39 Steps this week in a highly comedic adaptation by Patrick Barlow (from an original concept by Simon Corble and Nobby Dimon) involving four stellar actors playing over 130 roles in over 50 locations, phew!
It is directed with considerable panache by Adam Wells, who is also responsible for a superb soundscape and some extraordinary effects (aided and abetted by the tireless Caroline White).
The great Hitchcock is starkly silhouetted against the backdrop as we meet upper class adventurer Richard Hannay (played with blustering charm and swagger by the devilishly handsome Mark Read) who has returned to his London flat; he is bored to tedium, so he decides to indulge in a pointless pursuit – like going to the theatre.
Here he meets the mysterious gun-toting Annabella Schmidt (the suggestively sleek Lydia van Walsem Vas Nunes, who morphs impressively into various other roles, including a timorous Scottish wife and beautiful blonde hand-cuffed accomplice). Overnight, she is fatally stabbed at his flat and in her dying breath warns Hannay of international spy activities, which could catastrophically compromise the entire nation’s security. He is unwittingly plunged into the shady world of the 39 steps…
We embark on a madcap rollercoaster ride across Britain with him to the stirring strains of the Devil’s Gallop as he tries to elude the police – featuring (among other escapades) a plane crash, a chase along a train (with super strobe effects), and a dramatic plummet off the Forth Bridge (an atmospheric backdrop projection).
En route, we meet a dazzling array of characters and hats – the dour, bible-bashing Scottish hotelier of the tam o’shanter and piercing stare (the infinitely versatile Sam Bessant, who amongst other roles played the mesmeric Mr Memory), his trembling and timid wife serving up a huge plastic perch (reminiscent of the hilarious Julie Walter soup scene) the sinister cat-stroking villain (a suitably evil performance from Ian Head, who also portrayed a moustached landlady with an impressive bosom which caused some difficulties as he squeezed into his beige raincoat as detective, yet another of his many roles!).
We hurtle (at one point in a most convincing car built out of four chairs) towards a splendidly satisfying finale. This is quite deliciously lunatic theatre… don’t miss it!
The 39 Steps opens at the Shinfield Players Theatre, Whitley Wood Lane, Shinfield, Reading RG2 9DF on Wednesday 20 March at 7.30pm and runs until Saturday 23 March. Tickets can be bought online or via the box office.