“The theatrical scene in St Andrews has not been this hot since John Knox” claimed the promotion for Mermaids’ first offering of the semester, a production of “The 39 Steps” by Patrick Barlow, directed by Ed Polsue. I’m not sure if John Knox would have approved of this production as his spiritual successor, in which five actors took to the Byre stage to deliver a night of hot-blooded passion, cold-blooded murder and heart-stopping action sequences.
The play is an anarchical parody: of theatrical tropes, of spy stories and romance, of posh Englishmen and lowly Scotsmen. The cast featured two clowns, who between them played dozens of characters. This let Richard Hannay, a bog-standard well-bred Englishman wrongly accused of murder, run from London to the Highlands and back again whilst appearing in a series of increasingly ridiculous situations. It pains me to write something so complementary, but Harrison Roberts and Louis Wilson, Clown 1 and Clown 2 respectively, were practically flawless in every role they undertook.
Their accents, whether as a camp German, a severe Scot or a loud Londoner, were spot-on. Roberts’ turn as a forbidding Highland farmer was especially hilarious. Just the very particular and recognisable polite haughtiness with which he said “Cahn ah help yoo?” was enough to make me laugh. Wilson’s standout role was perhaps as another Scot, a sheriff who apprehends Hannay. If you weren’t aware, there are few things funnier than the word “murderer” said in a Scottish accent, so hearing “a murderer!”, “a murderer?!”, “a MURDERER!” in that scene was hysterical.
Their real time to shine occurred in a scene at a train station. By the end, they were both holding two hats, swapping them onstage to change between characters in a sequence that must have been torture to rehearse but was mind-blowing to watch. There are countless other moments of hilarity I could talk about, but I’m told I have a word limit.
Holding his ground against this formidable double-act wasn’t easy, but Daniel Jonusas somehow did it. Suave, slippery and infuriatingly self-confident, his Hugh Gra – sorry, Richard Hannay – beautifully satirised the English middle-class, such as when he found himself trapped under a murdered woman’s body and muttered “Golly!” while squirming out from underneath her. Jonusas oozed assuredness with every smirk and eyebrow raise. As for the female characters, Charlie Robertson as the farmer’s unfortunate wife captured a wonderful naivety, while Alexandra Upton starred both as the aforementioned murdered woman and love interest #3, Pamela. She and Jonusas worked wonderfully together, which was nice: actors without chemistry is bad enough without handcuffing them together for nearly half the play.
In addition to these riotous characters, Caelan Mitchell-Bennett’s set design made a mockery of elaborate theatre sets. For example, a door on wheels is a perfectly normal thing to find on a stage, until the characters move it around and walk through it for three minutes as they journey through a very large house. Likewise, the farmer made up his house by running madly dragging tables and chairs onstage while the other characters waited patiently outside the door, and Hannay’s escape through a window involved Jonusas lowering a plastic square frame over himself. My only criticism is that some scene changes weren’t done in an overtly satirical way, which left me a bit confused at times.
On the technical side, radio announcements chronicled the “rugged”, “attractive” Hannay’s journey, and exaggerated music added to the parody, although sometimes it drowned out the actors. Similarly, some lighting was used effectively, but other times it was distracting or misleading. Yet, these are minor quibbles – just things that should be looked out for in technical rehearsal.
And so here I sit, giggling as I remember all the gags that made the audience laugh so much that night. I had heard good things about the play, and had expectations of Jonusas and Wilson who respectively directed and starred in my favourite production from last semester, “Closer” – but the cast were funnier and more talented than I could have hoped. Everyone involved in “The 39 Steps” should be immensely proud, and I will be eagerly waiting to see what they do next.