What a difference a play makes…in refreshing an audience during examination season. From the opening song (made a hit by Dinah Washington), Abi Lord brought a sophistication of performance that made the label ‘Junior Play’ seem inadequate for such a slick, professional-style production, directed with tremendous pace, energy and total theatricality by Lauren Hyett. The technical work, given that young members of the stage crew Seb Bell, Ned Weston, Tim Strickland and Alex Brown were in charge, was quite remarkable: a tribute to the training skills of Mark Jenkins, but also to the genuine enthusiasm among pupils for theatre as a whole experience. It is, perhaps, relevant that the show was nominated for six Tony Awards for the Broadway run but the two it won were for lighting and sound.
Without the lighting, no actor would be in the limelight but, just as people remember the film versions of Buchan’s novel for Robert Donat and (in colour) Robert Powell (the Kenneth Moore version is, perhaps, less well known), so this production centred upon the charismatic performance of Adam Forrester. Adam’s sister is, of course, one of our most accomplished stage technicians of recent years, so Adam is fully aware that theatre is teamwork, but he rose to the challenge of being the play’s central pole with an aptly English aplomb. Ted Walliker as the Radio Announcer provided the running joke of describing the running man in terms that implied the decorum of broadcasting had been breached by a ‘crush’. Other types of humour included the not-quite-completed limerick about a man from Nantucket; an underwear salesman displaying his wares; the evergreen old joke about “Bob’s your Uncle?”; Theo MacDonald’s hilariously Scottish crofter and his piously Presbyterian prayer parody; the hotel owners, like something out of ‘Little Britain’ (the excellent Mike Nolan and Ellie Williamson); the Keystone Cops-style chases; the parody of Hitchcock’s ‘North by Northwest’ plane chase; Hannay’s political speech, totally devoid of content as he has been mistaken for a spokesman for someone whose name he cannot even pronounce; and the hammed up death of Professor Jordan. In this role Henry De Villiers provided a chill to the comic villain that few in the year group could have found: I almost believed he had removed part of his own little finger to make his German spy character more authentic. Yet he also retained a touch of Basil Fawlty to keep the play in comic mode.
The cast of 27 were often called on to face the music and dance, both to evoke period and cover the slick scene changes. They handled this superbly, thanks to the sensitive choreography of Hannah Moore. I assume there was more than a passing nod to the popular television programme ‘Strictly Come Dancing’ in the beaming audience-grabbing terpsichorean antics of Daniel Evans. Daniel has regularly impressed as a musician and seemed equally at home as an actor. He formed a double-act with Harry Simmonds as ‘Heavies’ as well as dancers, where their partners were Caroline Zoet and Flossy Livingstone, who, as with most of the actors, showed great versatility in playing different parts.
Adam’s suave Hannay was beautifully complemented by a very credible performance from Jemima Stephenson as Pamela Edwards (the famous ‘woman on the train’ Hitchcock created); it was in the scene with these two that something of the tension of the film and novel is retained in this mainly light-hearted stage version. Hitchcock’s most memorable creation is ‘Mr Memory’ (“Am I right, sir?”) and Tom Chesterman played this with touching sincerity and innocence: an idiot savant forced to learn the secrets of the enemy so that the 39 steps do not need to be written down. His death had real pathos almost because of, rather than despite, the gentle comedy he brought to the role. By contrast, the knife in the back of Abi Lord as Annabella Schmidt (another multi-talented performer), though visually effective, was, rightly, devoid of emotional impact (“Golly!”).
Above all, though, this was an ensemble production, with the carefully planned curtain call allowing all to receive their dues in applause and the director’s theatrical sense was pervasive: a few stools and ladders and you have a car, or even the Forth Bridge. An especially memorable and evocative scene was the use of a chorus of candle-holders (actors holding candles) to suggest the dark corridors of the mysterious ‘big house’: one of the moments where there was a real Hitchcock-like frisson in the VCT. Regular readers of the web-site (if such there be!) were recently reminded that Hitchcock had a beloved ‘big house’ of his own at Shamley Green but there is a closer connection in that playwright Patrick Barlow is the brother of David Barlow, former Chaplain of Cranleigh School and who himself trod the boards here in ‘Waiting for Godot’. That Common Room production was directed by the late Stephen Winkley, who came to Cranleigh nearly half a century ago and who died this year, but who might be smiling still in appreciation that his friend’s brother’s play was another in a line of accomplished productions at Cranleigh that build on a special tradition. These young actors and their fine director are worthy inheritors.