First hand: The 39 Steps

Published September 5, 2011

As The 39 Steps prepares to celebrate its fifth birthday with a gala performance on Wednesday, Caroline Bishop takes a sneak peak backstage to find out what keeps this successful show running like clockwork.

I am standing downstage at the Criterion theatre watching a bunch of adults wearing comedy costumes sprawled on the stage waggling cardboard cut-out figures, whose movements are projected in shadows to a laughing audience. Next, two of them stand up and wave long poles in the air, making the bi-plane models attached to the ends duck and dive. There’s the sound of a crash, and then two mini parachute models descend from the ceiling.

This is not a children’s party. Nor is it the make-believe antics of a group of energetic kids. It is a professional theatre production which has been entertaining audiences for five years, and I am witnessing first-hand how the cast and crew of The 39 Steps stage this fast-paced, ingenious comedy. Lying belly down on the floor playing shadow puppets, it seems, is all part of the process. It’s no wonder that Andrew Sloane, Deputy Stage Manager (DSM) on the show, says he “gets paid for being a kid”.
 
Arriving at the Criterion theatre’s stage door prior to this Wednesday matinee performance, I am taken by Company Manager Jasper Fox into the depths of the building, where some of the crew are hanging out in the green room. With its tartan sofas, basic kitchenette and scuffed table – upon which sit a box of Special K, the remains of a chocolate cake and a hastily discarded pack of cards – it resembles student digs, not least because an old telly in one corner is showing something I hitherto thought was only watched by hungover undergrads.

It isn’t until the five minute call that the last of the crew make their way to the stage to take up their ‘plots’ (their positions in the wings). I follow them, walking through the wardrobe area (actually just a corridor) where wigs and costumes lie in wait for their wearers. The wardrobe mistress, Alexa Day, dresser Carys Reynolds and today’s stage manager James Hurn are in position, along with three stuffed ravens and a toy chicken. Calling the show’s cues for lighting and sound – the latter of which he operates himself – is Sloane, who stands at a desk in the wings. Lighting operator Adam King goes to his post and the actors take up their starting positions; the curtain is ready to be lifted on The 39 Steps. 

“To work on something where you hear laughter is brilliant”

It has been half a decade since Patrick Barlow’s spoof on John Buchan’s 1915 novel and the 1935 Hitchcock film adaptation came to the West End. What began as a small production at West Yorkshire Playhouse and then London’s Tricycle theatre has become something of a phenomenon. After collecting Best New Comedy at the 2007 Olivier Awards, Maria Aitken’s production was recreated around the world, including on Broadway and in Tokyo, where Sloane was sent to help set up the show.

There’s no doubt the show deserves its success – it is a witty parody and was well-received when it opened – yet what seems surprising, when watching it backstage, is how modest a show it is to have achieved what it has. This is not a blockbuster musical such as Wicked or Legally Blonde, nor does it rely on big star names to attract audiences. The 39 Steps is that rare thing, an original British play which stands up on its own, and it is created night after night by four actors and a small stage crew who all work hard, in whatever capacity is required, to bring it to life. It is strangely satisfying to see the show’s main character, Richard Hannay – currently played by Rufus Wright – operating his own shadow puppet bi-plane.

“We’ve all got to get on because we all rely on each other,” says Sloane. “The show is bigger than anybody so there’s no room for ego at all. It doesn’t work in this place.”

After five years, the London production has become a “well-oiled machine”. Watching the first half of the show from the wings, it’s clear how well every member of the team knows their own function. Props are used and then returned to exactly the same spot in the wings, dresser Reynolds appears at precisely the right moment and place to stick a knife in Annabella’s (Laura Rogers) back or give the two ‘clowns’ a succession of hats, a newspaper and a pitchfork. Creating such mayhem on stage, I realise, requires a finely-honed backstage routine. “There’s a choreography, and if one person’s out slightly there’s a knock-on affect,” says Sloane. “The show is all about timing, so if a certain something isn’t there or someone isn’t there, the gag’s ruined.”

Watching them this afternoon, they all seem far too practised for anything to go awry, but things do. Usually, however, it’s the fault of technology: an audio track of cheering once got stuck on repeat; in one performance the snow machine used at the end of the show started working of its own accord, mid-show; on another occasion the sound cut out completely (as a result they now have two back-up computers rather than one). But the show has only been stopped twice in the four years that Andrew has worked on it.

As DSM, it’s Sloane’s role to sort such things out. When the sound died, he tells me, he had to reboot the computer while the show continued. Not exactly what he needed. If things go smoothly however, as they do this afternoon, being DSM on The 39 Steps seems a satisfying job to have. While following what looks like a list of foreign language instructions – in fact, a set of cues – on a computer screen, Sloane also has the pleasure of playing Game Boy (well, that’s how it appears) with the sound effects. When the actors pretend to be driving a car, Sloane presses a button to create a screech of brakes; when an owl hoots or a gun fires, that’s Sloane pressing his console. I’m itching to ask if I can have a go, but of course it’s not as easy as it looks. 

“The show is bigger than anybody so there’s no room for ego at all”

“One of the actors, [original cast member] Simon Gregor, called sound the fifth character,” says Sloane. By which he means, the timing of the sound effects has a huge part to play in making the audience laugh. “You know that if you leave a beat before a certain cue you’ll get a laugh.” So well does Sloane know the show that he can judge from the first scene what kind of audience they have at any given performance. If they laugh at a particular line he knows they’ll understand certain other written gags, but if they don’t, it means there may be a lot of non-English speaking tourists in the house, who may respond better to the visual gags. Sloane can tailor the timing of his sound effects accordingly. A sometime actor himself, he enjoys having that level of creative involvement.

This is just one reason why he has stayed in the show as long as he has. Having previously worked on serious dramas and musicals, Sloane enjoys being involved in a piece which makes people laugh night after night. “To work on something where you hear laughter is brilliant.”

Watching Dermot Canavan rushing off the stage in drag, the toy chicken being thrown into the wings and the stage crew making shadow puppets dance at an imaginary party, I can see the appeal. But one thing has struck me today: creating comedy is a serious business. As The 39 Steps celebrates its fifth birthday this month, it does so with a team that knows the key to a good gag is as much about what goes on behind the scenes as on the stage. If that’s the secret of its success, then the past five years is only the beginning.

CB

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