Reviews: The 39 Steps (Pitlochry) & Romeo and Juliet (Botanics, Glasgow)

Theatre

The 39 Steps

Pitlochry Festival Theatre

Various dates until October 13

Romeo And Juliet

Botanic Gardens, Glasgow

Until July 20

Reviewed by Mark Brown

Pitlochry Festival Theatre’s claim that its production of Patrick ‘National Theatre of Brent’ Barlow’s adaptation of The 39 Steps is a “Scottish premiére” is arguable. Whilst PFT may be the first Scottish company to have produced this pastiche of both John Buchan’s novel and Alfred Hitchcock’s ensuing movie, the truth is that Maria Aitken’s famous West End/Broadway production has made a few Caledonian forays; including memorable visits to Glasgow’s Theatre Royal and the King’s Theatre, Edinburgh back in 2008.

Indeed, Aitken’s impeccably-paced production might be considered to be definitive. It’s certainly very hard to match.  Nonetheless, this variable staging by Richard Baron does some justice to a truly high-octane piece of entertainment.

The play – which requires a cast of just four to perform all 139 characters – mercilessly sends up the conventions of both the thriller genre and the theatre itself. Baron’s cast (Dougal Lee, Kathryn Ritchie, George Docherty and David Delve) more-or-less speed us through Buchan’s ripping yarn of perfect Englishman Richard Hannay (Lee) and his daring pursuit of the sinister underground organisation of the title, which is trying, simultaneously, to frame him for murder and smuggle out of Britain secrets which threaten both King and country.

The director, who sets the whole thing within a false proscenium arch, is well aware of the show’s humorously self-conscious relationship to the genre of theatrical farce; a genre which is close to the hearts of the Ayckbourn-loving audience in Pitlochry. Consequently, there are some lovely metatheatrical moments, such as the talented Docherty’s rapid shifts between characters within the same seen, or the sudden transformation of four dining chairs into a speeding car.

However, great fun though it is (we’re even treated to Lee on the bagpipes), the production seems a little restrained. Compare it with Aitken’s tremendous show and one can’t help wishing that Baron’s offering was just that bit brighter, faster and bolder.

If Pitlochry’s take on a modern classic comes a little short, the Bard in the Botanics festival’s Romeo And Juliet is lacking in more departments than it is decent to mention. For a start, there’s no Montague (his wife carries the burden of family grief), no Lady Capulet, and the pronouncements of the outraged Prince of Verona are conveyed by means of the actor who plays Romeo (James Rottger) taking to a megaphone!

A little like the Italian football team being over-run by the Spanish in the final of the Euros, this young cast of just five actors struggles to express itself. Little fault lies with the actors; pity, in particular, poor Daniel Campbell, who plays Tybalt, Friar John and, in a joke which quickly wears off, Juliet’s Nurse. The heart of the problem lies in Gordon Barr’s terribly messy and misconceived idea; namely, a compressed, modern dress R&J (a derelict old car, hoodies, contemporary street violence, gratuitous and irrelevant use of pop music), played by a tiny, young cast.

The youth of the cast might be appropriate – there are strong efforts from Stephanie McGregor (Juliet/Lady Montague) and Luke McConnell (Mercutio/Capulet/the Apothecary) in particular – but one doubts that even this festival’s most experienced players could pull off such a weak, overwrought revisioning of Shakespeare’s tragedy.

These reviews were originally published in the Sunday Herald on July 1, 2012

© Mark Brown

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