It is surprisingly rare that Mermaids stages a true comedy in St Andrews, and this production of Patrick Barlow’s play is certainly that. The play has a strange history, as a farce based on an Alfred Hitchcock movie, itself based on an early thriller novel. Even from the promotional images, it was clear this production would be self-aware, revelling in its meta elements and the broad pastiche of a genre well known for being chock full of clichés.
The set (by stalwart Caelan Mitchell-Bennett) was cleverly designed to complement the tone of the play: overtly theatrical and unrealistic. Actors often deliberately drew attention to themselves as they moved around set pieces to create a “car” or “train”, carried lampposts on and off hurriedly every time they’re referred to, and made daring escapes performed by sliding offstage on a rolling window frame. This sort of haphazard approach to set is well suited to student theatre, as flaws or crudely made pieces can be explained away as contributing to the tone of the piece. There were some issues with pieces that clearly were supposed to work smoothly. A train sign on a string got stuck (requiring a stage hand to run onstage mid-scene and drag it off as inconspicuously as possible) and the flats used as theatre booths were somewhat clumsily handled. As the set was made up of these mix and match pieces designed for comedic rather than aesthetic purposes, it could also feel a little sparse. However, I have very rarely seen a student production in the Byre that does not suffer from this problem, and this was nevertheless an effective and cohesive part of the production.
As a small cast piece, The 39 Steps really relies on strong and consistent performances from the whole cast, and this production certainly delivered. Daniel Jonusas, consistently excellent in tragic dramatic roles, here shows a new side to his acting as Richard Hannay. Jonusas finds the perfect balance between straight-man to the two clowns and an over-the-top caricature of an English gentlemen, complete with slightly questionable pencil moustache. Harrison Roberts and Louis Wilson as the clowns are both an absolute joy to watch, revelling in the huge variety of characters, accents, voices and costumes they have to swap between with incredible speed. It’s a feat of endurance as much as acting, a laugh a minute performance as well as a workout. Particularly enjoyable was Roberts’ turn as an elderly Scottish woman complete with pink tartan, and his clearly troublesome false moustache. Alexandra Upton seems born for this sort of period role (complete with the perfect hairstyle) and while her roles offered something less of an acting challenge, she excellently caught the mannerisms and stereotypical nature of both of her characters.
The one questionable element in the casting was the decision not to have the same actor play all three love interest roles. While this is absolutely not a reflection on Charlie Robertson, who gave a funny and endearing performance as Margaret, it felt like Polsue couldn’t quite commit to either having the same woman play all three roles, or splitting them between three actors. Thematically, this undermined the comedic implications of all three girls essentially being interchangeable, but also failed to really challenge this and genuinely differentiate these roles. It was perhaps the only directorial decision that seems to have been made for practical rather than artistic reasons, and while I appreciate the attempt to create more roles for the underserved female actors of St Andrews, the coherence of the production suffered for it.
Where Polsue’s direction shone was in the use of physical theatre throughout the production, so rarely seen at all in St Andrews, never mind so well. Simple elements, such as the actors’ slight jiggling during any scene in a train or car, contributed hugely to making the world of the play feel real and suspending disbelief. In particular, the escape scene along the side of a train was incredibly impressive, fully conjuring this classic action movie image with nothing but a few boxes, a sound effect, and the actors’ bodies.
While this production wasn’t entirely able to avoid some of the classic problems of St Andrews student theatre (which are so often exacerbated by the Byre theatre) it was nevertheless a polished and hilarious version of a very entertaining play. A less tangible, but common downfall of student plays is that they don’t quite know what they are trying to be and so are tonally strange and inconsistent. Polsue, despite one or two odd directorial decisions, knows exactly what makes this play such an excellent romp, and should be commended for very effectively conveying that to a gleeful audience.