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New Wolsey Young Company's The 39 Steps dazzles with comic invention

PUBLISHED: 16:19 26 April 2019 | UPDATED: 16:19 26 April 2019

Richard Hannay (Charlie Shephard) finds that house guest Annabella Schmidt (Melina Synadinou) is in no hurry to leave in The 39 Steps at the New Wolsey Studio Photo: Craig Fuller

Richard Hannay (Charlie Shephard) finds that house guest Annabella Schmidt (Melina Synadinou) is in no hurry to leave in The 39 Steps at the New Wolsey Studio Photo: Craig Fuller

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Review: The 39 Steps, adapted by Patrick Barlow, New Wolsey Young Company, New Wolsey Studio, until May 4

Richard Hannay (Charlie Shephard) is trying to travel incognito in The 39 Steps at the New Wolsey Studio Photo: Craig FullerRichard Hannay (Charlie Shephard) is trying to travel incognito in The 39 Steps at the New Wolsey Studio Photo: Craig Fuller

This is a classic thriller, played as a madcap farce – a pre-war period piece brought to vivid life as a piece of heightened contemporary theatre. But, playing something for laughs, making comedy appear spontaneous and carefree takes an awful lot of talent, timing and discipline.

Despite appearances to the contrary, you can't make it up on the spot and the New Wolsey's Young Company have created a wonderfully polished comic gem that appears to be improvised but is the result of months of rehearsal and attention to detail.

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The amount of invention on display is staggering. No-one just walks across the stage, or sits down, or delivers a tray of drinks. The action is always augmented with a little bit of business which manages to be funny while not taking the audience's attention away from the main thrust of the story.

Despite the hysterical laughter which punctuates the action throughout the show, director Rob Salmon and the cast never forget that the narrative is what is important. Although, the play has more to do with Alfred Hitchcock's 1937 movie rather than John Buchan's novel, the story is still very important and despites the spoofing of the era, it still works well as a thriller.

The story is imaginatively staged and the ensemble cast, led by Charlie Shephard as the hapless hero Richard Hannay, is uniformly superb. Apart from Shephard, they all play multiple parts and invest them all with the same level of care and invention.

Richard Hannay (Charlie Shephard) and unwilling accomplice Pamela (Nancy Doubledee)  in The 39 Steps at the New Wolsey Studio Photo: Craig FullerRichard Hannay (Charlie Shephard) and unwilling accomplice Pamela (Nancy Doubledee) in The 39 Steps at the New Wolsey Studio Photo: Craig Fuller

While Charlie Shephard turns Hannay into a charming, vain, but rather dim hero, Tom Beattie relishes the opportunity to be a traitorous master-villain as well as a policeman, a music hall compere and a doddery old scots politician. They are well served by Harry Longbottom, who displays great comic timing in an array of increasingly funny cameo roles as a milk man, a thug, a porter, a fake policeman and an old Scots crofter, along with Melina Synadinou as undercover spy Annabella Schmidt, Fred Double's Mr Memory and Nancy Doubledee's wonderfully aloof posh heroine Pamela.

The whole thing rockets along, propelled by lots of comic invention and a genuine sense of love for these old spy films. The highest praise I can give is to say that I soon forgot I was watching a Young Company show, instead I regarded this as a great evening of theatre and worthy of being in the main house. Highly recommended.

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