Monday, 21 November 2011

The 39 Steps by John Buchan, adapted by Patrick Barlow. Progress Theatre, Reading, November 2011

John Buchan and Alfred Hitchcock's THE 39 STEPS' is a hilarious adaptation by Patrick Barlow of Buchan's intriguing mystery and Hitchcock's classic 1935 film. It shares the same characters but as befits Barlow's methods the drama employs only four actors. It's all very comic and at times leans towards 'Monty Python' but still manages to show a saintly reverence towards both filmmaker and author. Owen Goode's dapper gent Richard Hannay is at the centre of the action, a man bored with London life who yearns for an escape from his 'dull little rented flat' in Portland Place.

However, it doesn't take long for pipe smoking Hannay to find himself in a murky world of murder, spies, car chases, and steam trains and, I'd say, rather fetching hats. All it takes is a chance encounter at 'A Cockney Music Hall' with Laura Sherman's shady femme fatale Annabella Schmid that leads to an accusation of murder and the key plot device - what exactly are the 39 Steps? It cannot be an easy task for the actors. Laura Sherman has only three parts, yet, Christopher Hoult and Craig Daniels, in the course of the evening, take on over a hundred roles between them. Furthermore, this is against a minimal backdrop of twelve plus locations that takes in everything from 'The Forth Bridge' to 'The Scottish Moors'. Anyone familiar with the original works will swiftly recognise these striking places and their dramatic significance to the narrative.

With quick-fire costume changes, highly effective nifty props and sets, this ripping yarn rattles along at a cracking pace. One has to marvel at the out and out energetic performances of all four leads. Especially notable is the comic timing of Clown 1 (Hoult) and Clown 2 (Daniels) that takes it beyond farce and into a higher realm of dramatic comedy. One has to admit though that you cannot go wrong with this play, as it is so lovingly crafted and respectful to its outstanding source material - a gripping thriller of a bygone age. I'm not usually one for superlatives but in this case, I have to admit defeat and state - an excellent play and a great production.

Edited version of review posted on the Remotegoat website. 

Kate Rusby at Reading Concert Hall September 2011

Kate Rusby celebrates twenty years in the business next year and is now something of an institution on the folk circuit. She came into a moribund scene and along with others took the music to a wider audience even achieving the distinction of a nomination in 1999's Mercury Prize for "Sleepless". She confidently demonstrated how she achieved this swing to popularity and why she remains the darling of the Radio 2 Folk Awards. With the help of Damien O'Kane, Julian Sutton,Ed Boyd,Malcolm Stitt and Kevin McGuire she amiably meandered through her past nine albums.

Following a brief set by her fellow musicians, Rusby opened with "Playing of Ball", Cobbler's Daughters and "Only Hope". This opening section also gave us "The Old Man" from the "Awkward Annie" album.Clearly, the best performance of the evening must surely have been "Who Will Sing Me Lullabies?" This poignant lament pays tribute to the Battlefield Band's lead singer Davy Steele who died in 2001. It deservedly won Rusby the 'Best Original Song' award at the 2002 Radio 2 Folk Awards.A minor revelation of the evening was discovering that the singer had contributed to the soundtrack of the film "Heartlands" [2002]. It featured her next song "Over You Now". This song was a perfect marriage of Damien O'Kane's banjo playing and Kate's mellifluous and haunting voice.

A change of tempo and she effortlessly moved to "Game of All Fours" from "The Girl Who Couldn't Fly" and "Let the Cold Wind Blow" from "Little Lights".Rusby then quit the stage briefly, leaving the band to demonstrate their ability as instrumentalists. On Kate's return, the evening concluded with "Sweet Bride", The Wishing Wife" and "Underneath the Stars".

Overall, it was a 'safe' and agreeable concert peppered by Rusby's trademark banter and well received by her knowing audience but it lacked luminosity. It could have quite easily been down to the cruel acoustics obscuring the lyrics.Then again, maybe it is time for her to move forward and somehow experiment, to give a bit of edge to her performance. If not, there is definitely a danger of Kate Rusby becoming, dare I say it, a national treasure.Edited version of review posted on the Remotegoat website.