Review of the 39 Steps
39 STEPS TO HEAVEN
The 39 Steps
Balcarras School, Cheltenham
14th & 15th December 2023
According to an old English adage, if a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing well. In the case of the annual stage production at the Charlton Kings Arena, aka Balcarras School Hall, it is worth doing all over again. Ten years on from their 2013 presentation, the Alt-Na-Shellach (sorry, Alt-Na-Shelachhhh) gang was all here again, and the laughter factor soared higher than Ben Nevis during a production in which the fourth wall wasn’t so much as broken as totally demolished.
The plot is straightforward enough. London, August 1935. A beautiful young woman is found stabbed to death in Richard Hannay’s Portland Place flat, involving (or infolfing?) him in a dastardly scheme to plunge Britain into war and prompting his desperate race to the north to evade the long arm of the law, only to run headlong into it, or what passes for one – they’re all German spies, yer see - whilst seeking sanctuary in rural Scotland. It can only be The 39 Steps, and in the hands of Tony Bennett’s talented troupers, quite simply the best show in town.
From the start, this hugely entertaining production scarcely let up, careering along as wildly as the express train that carries Hannay through the suffocating mist to his date with destiny at the Forth Bridge. Tony Bennett’s hilarious adaptation of his 2013 adaptation of an eternity of previous adaptations of John Buchan’s classic novel was another rollercoaster of imagination, improvisation, glamour and comedy, which highlighted once more the vast reserves of talent at this renowned bastion of learning, and all robustly supported by the highly accomplished orchestra under Jane Ward Watts.
Splendidly costumed by wardrobe mistress Kate Daniels and her team, here was another Balcarras cast of thousands, well, 187 of them, featuring Siobhan Winterbottom’s tartan-draped and glitzy dancers, swooning newsreaders, batty local political activists and morose Scotsmen, replete with commendably convincing accents (och aye). Given how one role became so pivotal, did anyone consider the subtitle Operation Milkman?
Elsewhere on the moors, the major principal roles were shared between the élite of the school’s actors, including two Richard Hannays on each night, each sporting pencil moustaches as wide as the Trossachs (No, dear, Trossachs), pumping adrenaline and portraying the hero in his own distinctive and witty idiom, with both appearing in time for the grim climax at the London Palladium. On which subject, all rise for the two Mr. Memorys, articulate, histrionic and wonderfully engaging. There was even an amusing cameo from headteacher Dominic Burke as a vengeful, Red Baron-ish fighter pilot, ticking the box for Hitchcock’s 1959 film North by Northwest, and when did you last find yourself marking time to The Proclaimers’ I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles) at curtain down? This show had it all, and from an academy that will carry the flag for school music and drama for decades to come.
A team effort of gargantuan proportions, and an evening of pure happiness. I would happily walk 500 miles to see this show again.