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The 39 Steps

One of the best developments in local theatre in recent years has been the return of repertory theatre, both at the Mowlem in Swanage and at the Shelley in Boscombe. OK, so it is only for a few weeks in the summer, but it reminds us that there is something special about a repertory company, a familiarity that creates a sort of bond between actors and audience.

The Hordern Ciani Ltd/The Swanage Rep Co. is back for its third season at the Mowlem, where its first offering of this summer is The 39 Steps. The stage version owes much more to the 1935 film starring Robert Donat (re-made several times since with Kenneth More and Robert Powell, among others, in the lead role) than it does to John Buchan’s 1915 book. In fact, it follows the plot of the film pretty closely, the big difference being that it is mainly played for laughs, the first element of ‘comedy-thriller’ being a lot more noticeable than the second.

Thus the hero, Richard Hannay, who is a rather humourless prig in Buchan’s book and not much more comical in Donat’s interpretation, becomes an upper-class twit who it is hard to imagine as a ruthless man of action. Nothing wrong with that, and Alex Scott Fairley gives an excellent performance that holds the whole play together. It is also, incidentally, an impressive feat of memorising lines, especially as he will be playing different parts over the next two weeks – but that’s repertory for you. He has a Cleese-like gift for physical comedy (perhaps it’s something to do with being tall) and his diction, as befits the part, is impeccable.

Nicole Faraday switches with ease from being an exotic Mata Hari figure to the very Scottish wife of a Highland crofter to Hannay’s love interest. She is an experienced and accomplished actress, and it shows. If the first of those three roles is the most memorable, it is only because it is the most colourful, and I suspect that Nicole enjoys the chance to go slightly over the top.

The quite complicated story is told by a cast of only four players, so immense credit to James Taylor Thomas and Alasdair Saksena, who are rather oddly listed in the programme as ‘Clown 1’ and ‘Clown 2’. ‘Lords High Everything Else’ might be a better description as they play all the parts not taken by Alex and Nicole: policemen, railway passengers, sinister secret agents and more, as well as the Professor and the all-important Mr Memory. They work incredibly hard and their versatility is as impressive as their comic gifts; a scene on the train to Scotland with Hannay is superbly done, as is a Wilson and Keppel sand dance. If there was a criticism, it would be that Alasdair understands that sometimes less is more in comedy, whereas James camps up Mr Memory just a little too much, and his Scottish accent as a hotel-keeper is so exaggerated as to be impenetrable.

The sound is an important part of the production and is faultlessly provided by Lennon Yates, just one of three local crew used by the company. The other two are Thomas Curtis (lighting) and Matthew Haysom (set design), whose contributions are equally as successful.

The 39 Steps runs until 10 August at 7.30pm, with Keeping Up Appearances from 14 – 17 August and Wait Until Dark from 21 – 24 August. If you want enjoyable, high-quality theatre, head for the Mowlem at least once in the next three weeks.