Friday, March 08, 2019

The 39 Steps – cleverness and controlled choreography left me cold but everyone else laughing (Bruiser in Lyric Theatre until 31 March)

As a child I was capable of laughing uncontrollably in social situations, unable to stop despite dirty looks from my parents. As I’ve grown older, hysteria no longer makes me laugh. In fact, relatively little makes me laugh. John Bishop’s 2017 show in the SSE Arena failed to generate a chuckle. So too did the 2016 performance of The 39 Steps that I reviewed. So I returned to the Lyric this week, interested to see whether the classic parody had caught me on a bad night, or whether the visual humour at the heart of this show and I were incompatible. As I explained back three years ago:
The conceit of The 39 Steps is that a cast of four perform 139 parts during this highly choreographed and stylised witty play based on the 1935 Hitchcock film of John Buchan’s novel.

When the mysterious Annabella (played again by Hannah Brackstone-Brown) dies overnight in a well-to-do moustached Londoner’s flat (Michael Johnston plays Richard Hannay) he is accused of murder and goes on the run, travelling north to Scotland to find the only man who can help unravel the mystery of the whispered ‘39 Steps’.

The rather simple-looking set certainly fulfils Bruiser’s artistic policy of “minimal set for maximum impact” and is animated with unexpected props. Two ‘clowns’ (Michael Condron and Benjamin Stratton) provide the energy and tomfoolery, recreating classic cinematic moments including a superbly executed sequence set on a train. Stratton – the only cast member not in the 2016 production – was unflappable throughout. Condron is king of the pause and throws knowing glances at the audience with great timing.

Director Lisa May and choreographer Sarah Johnston have created such a controlled choreography and physicality amongst the cast of four, acted out at breakneck speed with no room for hesitation or error. It’s dance-like and can be amazing to watch. The misogynist script is less appealing. The to-me-to-you pastiche and deliberate over-acting become tiresome and while the deliberate errors allow the action to pause, they too wear thin.

On-stage gestures are synchronised with Matthew Reeve’s sound effects. Whoever is controlling the cues really should join the cast on stage for a bow at the end. The nod to “hard borders” in the McCorquodale political rally was a nice addition. There were laughing hyenas all around me in the stalls, tickled by the simplest jiggle or shuffle. In the end I did burst out laughing in the second half when a chair was thrown across the stage and a leg fell off.

One wag sitting in the row behind had an interval theory about which character was really Jacob Rees-Mogg and which was Michel Barnier; nearly every film and play can be fitted to a Brexit narrative if you try hard enough. Bruiser have restaged a show that demonstrates a high level of skill and control amongst the cast – some of the routines felt even more solid than back in 2016 – and is clearly a crowd-pleaser and a commercial success.

Other Bruiser shows like The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee took risks by including the audience in each performance and portrayed characters with identifiable motives and traits. Even the love story at the heart of The 39 Steps gets lost in the fog. The play’s weakness is not that it fails to make me laugh – that’s “a me problem” as my child would say – but that the cleverness of the performance supplants any ambition of speaking to contemporary society or reaching out to the audience.

The 39 Steps is a co-production between Bruiser Theatre Company and the Lyric Theatre and runs until 31 March.

Photo credit: Johnny Frazer

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