The foibles and mores of the past are a rich seam from which to mine humour, as a revival of Patrick Barlow’s Buchan adaptation amply demonstrates
The 39 Steps
King’s Theatre, Edinburgh
Star ratimng: * * * *
The Importance of Being Earnest
Star rating: * * *
Oran Mor, Glasgow
Star rating: * * *
ARE WE “BETTER TOGETHER”? We certainly are, if our idea of a good night out at the theatre involves gorgeous chaps and girls from the very top notch of British society romancing their way through the long twilight of Empire, somewhere between 1900 and 1945. The fact that the remaining 99 per cent of the population, in this kind of drama, is patronised, de-eroticised, and typecast as a series of dimwit policemen and comedy servants, seems to bother us not a whit; and this week, two touring productions that whisk us back into this world have been providing what is – to judge by the size of the crowds – a hugely welcome touch of escapism and comic relief, for audiences in Edinburgh and Perth.
Patrick Barlow’s brilliantly inventive stage version of The 39 Steps – first seen in 1996 – is, at its best, one of the finest examples of this genre, a gloriously self-mocking piece of theatre that takes John Buchan’s narrative as rewritten for Alfred Hitchcock’s great 1935 film, and runs it deftly through all the poor-theatre staging devices of the 1970s Fringe, where Barlow learned his craft.
At worst, this technique, which involves telling the whole story with only four actors, can seem merely tricksy and self-conscious. At its best, though, the rough-and-ready mood of the show can begin to work as a powerful metaphor for the makeshift, unglamorous human realities beneath the pretensions of the late-imperial Britain in which Buchan’s outsider-hero, Richard Hannay, struggles to find a role.
And to the delight of the audience, Barlow’s adaptation does emerge at its sparkling best in this beautifully crafted and perfectly pitched touring version, re-directed by Lucy Skilbeck from an original production by Maria Aitken. In Richard Ede, it has a truly outstanding Hannay. The lovely Charlotte Peters is fiercely brainy and absolutely delightful in most of the female roles; and Tony Bell and Gary Mackay play policemen, retainers, villains, peasant and landlords – of all genders, and sometimes all at once – with terrific skill and verve.
No-one could call The 39 Steps a radical piece of theatre; its Fringe staging techniques belong to the generation now facing retirement, its story and class structure to a generation long dead. From the dialogue between those two strands of British culture, though, something hugely clever and entertaining can emerge; and the team behind this production succeed in finding that point of tension, and in exploiting it with a skill that leaves audiences thrilled by the story, and uplifted by the sheer, absurd joy of theatre.
There’s no such surge of creative energy, alas, in London Classic Theatre’s current touring production of Oscar Wilde’s comic masterpiece The Importance Of Being Earnest, which appeared at Perth Festival on Tuesday, before travelling on to Stirling and Dundee. That the play contains a stinging radical critique of the British ruling class in its pompous prime is fairly obvious; the character of Lady Bracknell is a searing and hilarious portrait of a ruling elite that constantly claims the moral high ground, while in fact being motivated almost entirely by financial greed.
As young Gwendolen says in the play, though, in matters of consequence, style is always more important than substance, and the high style of Wilde’s drama – the costumes, the tea-tables, the accents, the endless ripple of drawing-room wit – now often distracts directors and audiences to such an extent that its content barely registers.
Michael Cabot’s production for London Classic Theatre assembles an enthusiastic cast of young actors, has a pleasantly spare and effective design by Kerry Bradley, and enjoys the wit of the text from moment to moment; but its focus is essentially on dealing with the highly wrought formal challenges of the play, rather than on making it convey any dramatic meaning. And the result is a delightful, pastel-coloured way to spend an evening; just a shade long-drawn-out and lacking in energy towards the end, and haunted throughout by the knowledge that Wilde can, and should, much sharper, funnier and more contemporary than this.
At Oran Mor, meanwhile, David MacLennan’s remarkable Play, Pie and Pint season celebrates its 300th new play in nine years, on a wave of poignant emotion with Liz Lochhead’s new short piece Mortal Memories. Set in an old folks’ sheltered housing complex, Mortal Memories tells the story of Nettie Abernethy – beautifully played by Ann Scott Jones – and her recently widowed friend John Henderson, played by David Anderson. The warden suggests a Burns Supper; and the relatively youthful John visits an increasingly confused Nettie to find out whether her old enthusiasm for Burns is still intact.
There’s something pleasingly surreal about Lochhead’s vision that isn’t quite captured in Marilyn Imrie’s low-key and sometimes hesitant production. Robert Pettigrew, as the third character, is not only a pianist, but a resident who plays the piano, and never speaks. The play ranges interestingly from naturalism through fantasy and monologue to outright performance; it involves an immensely touching and well observed celebration of the undoubted fact that poetry and song can survive in the mind, and give huge pleasure, long after other mental functions begin to fade. Yet in the end, all this seems only half-glimpsed, in a brief 45 minutes at Oran Mor; rich, passionate, but – like Netty – slightly hesitant, and a little far away.
• The 39 Steps is at the King’s Theatre, Edinburgh, until Saturday, at Eden Court Theatre, Inverness, 28 May to 1 June, and at His Majesty’s, Aberdeen, 3-8 June. The Importance of Being Earnest is at Dundee Rep, tonight until Saturday. Mortal Memories is at Oran Mor until Saturday.