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ONSTAGE

S P E T S 9 3 THE

Knutsford Little Theatre began life as Knutsford Amateur Dramatic Society in 1925 and early performances were at the YMCA and the Town Hall. After the war the society took over a building on Queen Street where American troops stationed in the town helped build a stage out of old ammunition boxes. Changing their name to match that of their new home the group set about transforming the theatre into the comfortable, well equipped space that it is today.

life, takes a trip to the music hall where he meets a beautiful and mysterious foreign agent who tells him of a plot by an evil power to steal secrets vital to Britain’s air defence. When the agent is murdered in Hannay’s flat, he finds himself on the run both from the police and from the shadowy organisation known as The Thirty-Nine Steps. What follows is an exhilarating and, for the actors, pretty exhausting chase that culminates at the London Palladium.

The group perform four or five plays a year plus a junior production and a very popular pantomime. The theatre is also available for external lets and their extensive selection of props, costumes, back cloths and lighting equipment is available for hire.

Casting the Play

Selection of Play

The 39 Steps first came to my attention in my capacity of script reviewer for this magazine. It is a jewel of a play; witty, fast paced and very, very silly: something that, done properly, would guarantee a memorable night’s entertainment. Not only did I know I had to see it, I knew that, one day, I had to produce it. I didn’t have to wait long to achieve my first ambition. The play was on tour and due to be performed at Manchester’s Opera House, so I splashed out on a couple of top price tickets, a wise investment as it got me a seat close up to the action in the vast auditorium.

With a script as good as this it was unsurprising that there would be a lot of interest amongst our theatre’s acting community, but the casting of the lead role was never in doubt. Sean Duvall was born to play Richard Hannay! His comic timing and appreciation of the script comes from many years of experience, whilst his appearance and athletic ability made him a natural for the part. The female lead plays three characters and is a very challenging role. Each has to be distinct in the characterisation but each also has to gain the sympathy of the audience. I was fortunate in having a couple of very fine actresses express their interest in the roles, and, after some deliberation, decided that Ali Hulford brought just the right level of softness required for ‘Margaret’, dizziness required for ‘Pamela’ and seductiveness for ‘Annabella’.

Having witnessed the play in the theatre, I was brimming with ideas about what I would do if I got the chance to produce it myself and passed a copy of the script to the Drama Secretary of Knutsford Little Theatre. “Is it available?” she asked. A fair question as it is unusual for a play that is on tour and packing them in at its West End home to be available for amateur performance. She rang Samuel French and their response was that they’d have to seek permission from the producers in the West End. It didn’t sound at all hopeful so it came as a shock a couple of days later to receive a text message from her to tell me that they’d said yes. I was so pleased I dashed out of a meeting to ring her back and express my delight. It was only later that I began to dwell on the enormity of the task I was taking on!

Two ‘clowns’ play all the other roles: salesmen, heavies, Mr Memory and the compère, the professor and his wife, policemen, doddery old gents, the list goes on and on. In the West End production the roles are covered by two male actors but I decided to be flexible as to the gender of whom I cast. Again, I was rather spoilt for choice but, in the end, decided to give the wardrobe department a nightmare by casting the very tall Bob Jennings and the petite Nicola Quinn. At first I considered having Bob play all the female roles but then thought that it was a joke that would soon wear thin so assigned the characters to make best use of the actors’ strengths. Nicola’s imitation of a sheep is a glory to behold!

Play

The Set

The stage production started life, playing in church and village halls around Yorkshire and Lancashire, as a two man version of the John Buchan novel by Simon Corble and Nobby Dimon. When Patrick Barlow came on board he changed it so that it follows the plot of the Alfred Hitchcock film with everything included. The train journey, the Forth bridge, the chase across the moors, the plane crash, it is all there and all characters are played by just four actors. The great thing about the script is that, though it is very definitely played for laughs, it is never disrespectful of the work on which it is based. Richard Hannay, bored with his

Thirty-Three scenes mean that the set has to be representative rather than authentic. We have a very deep stage available but I wanted to keep the action close to the audience throughout the production. Some of the action actually took place in the auditorium whilst a pair of tabs hung half way back gave us some flexibility for the music hall and Palladium scenes. Re-using the same chairs and tables in different scenes and the use of rostrums to be both train seats and carriages, then the Forth bridge, and then the bed at the McGarrigle Hotel meant that the stage and wings were not cluttered up with furniture. With windows and doors on casters, a lamppost made out of a drainpipe and a fold-away theatre box the changes between scenes could all

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ONSTAGE be made at the speed required for such a fast paced play.

Sound, Lighting, Props and Costumes

One of the first things I did once I knew that I was doing the play was to go through the script make a list of all the requirements. The list of costumes covered a page and a half of A4 paper, another page was required for the props list and there are ninety eight sound effects. Lighting too would be a challenge with the requirement to light distinct areas of the stage as well as areas in the auditorium. I was in no doubt that I was going to need all the help I could get and made sure that I approached the most experienced persons available to make sure I had them on board. When I first started in the theatre it was to do sound, and with an exciting sound plot like this I was very tempted to do it myself, but in the end contented myself with putting the cues together for someone else to play on the night. James Broughton created some interesting spacial effects: for example, the script calls for canned applause and laughter and we had this coming from speakers mounted at the back of the theatre. Other speakers were mounted to the front and rear of the stage so, in total, we had a choice of six areas for the effects. Viccie Dougall and Penny James, two alumni from the theatre’s junior section, coped magnificently with the technology. Miles Buckley’s understanding of how to create just the right atmosphere with the lighting proved invaluable as we moved from scene to scene. I was particularly impressed by the moody atmosphere he created for the Forth bridge and also for a spectacular plane crash effect. I believe that lighting is part of the magic of theatre and a simple thing, such as daylight gradually coming up on Pamela as she watches Hannay sleep, can indicate, not just the passing of time, but also allows us to get inside the character’s head. Jenny O’Brien came up with all manner of props be they very realistic looking kippers, a bullet implanted into a hymn book, or a dagger that doubled as a lever and Jacky Slator was the model of efficiency during the performances. Costume was a real challenge and a huge thanks have to go to Sarah Lorenz whose cheerful resourcefulness contributed greatly to the success of the production. Together with her small army of helpers she magically produced, amongst other things, identical costumes of vastly different sizes for our clowns, a marvellous Harris Tweed suit for Hannay and a stunning dress for the alluring Annabella. It is my honest opinion that our costumes were superior to the ones used in the professional production I saw in Manchester.

Director’s Comments When I direct a play I approach it as though I am a project manager bringing together a group of people who all have a contribution to the final product. I will, of course, have a very clear idea of what I want to achieve, but how we get there relies on the talents of the people in my team. Before we started rehearsals I made sure I was very familiar with the play. I had read it dozens of times and was bursting with ideas of how I was going to put my own stamp on the production. In homage to the master, I wanted a cameo role for Hitchcock, I wanted dancing girls at the London Palladium and, above all, I wanted to present our audience with a unique experience. The advantage of having an experienced cast is that they naturally know what works. Blocking was completed at the first rehearsal and I tried to help them find their characters rather than just tell them how it should be played. Naturally I have an opinion on how the play should be presented but I think it is important for the actors to be fully involved in the creative process. If someone delivers a line differently from how I imagined it I will always ask myself what works best before imposing my point of view. I believe that the end result is a team effort of which we can all be proud. In addition to the magnificent cast and the technical team already mentioned a number of other people played their part. Tina Buckley’s contribution as prompt was invaluable during the rehearsal period and I must also mention Lilian Atkinson who choreographed my dancing girls, Tessa Sawyer who taught my clowns to jitterbug, Amy Curran for make-up, Sean Duvall, Geoff Crook and their team who built my set and James Broughton who pulled off a minor miracle in stage managing the whole thing.

Conclusion

The 39 Steps is a challenging play to put on both from a technical point of view and for the actors. The clowns, in particular, have some very rapid costumes changes and with the actors themselves setting the scenes everyone found it both physically and mentally exhausting. Having said that, it is also a great deal of fun. Every rehearsal was a pleasure and it is good if you can have a laugh along the way, providing of course you remain focussed on the task in hand. People were reserving tickets months in advance and it came as no surprise to completely sell out. The laughter during the performance, and the compliments from people as they left the theatre, was all the reward we needed and The 39 Steps is a production that I shall remember for a very long time.

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The 39 Steps - April 2011  

David Muncaster from Knutsford Little Theatre discusses his production of The 39 Steps

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