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Anil Datta
November 29, 2017

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The 39 Steps to roaring laughter

The 39 Steps to roaring laughter

Monday evening had theatre fans riveted to their seats at the Arts Council auditorium, laughing their sighs out over a highly entertaining play, the 39 Steps, written by John Buchan.


It was both a historical and a nostalgic trip back in time, to the Britain of the era immediately preceding the Second World War, a time when “Britannia ruled the waves”, and to the stiff upper lip English elite and their ways, something that today has been consigned just to the history books with a new age of egalitarianism dawning there.


The play begins with an English man in his London flat, a presumably stiff upper lip person, a quintessential gentleman, Richard Hannay, astutely played by Faraz Lodhi. He comes across a lady, Annabella Schmidt (played most astutely by Sanam Saeed), who tells him that somebody, somewhere is trying to harm his country. After giving him a mine of vital information, she requests him to be allowed to stay the night in his flat to which, gentleman that he is, he agrees without much ado. Then, like all plots that have to take a dramatic turn to create suspense, she is found murdered in the flat.


Fearing to be implicated, he becomes a fugitive and is on the run. He crosses the England-Scotland border by train and it is in Scotland that all the action takes place. On board the train, he meets two characters, one of them being the wily-looking Professor Jordan.


The twists and turns, which are a multitude, make for a highly amusing and entertaining play. Up until the end, the audience is kept guessing as to what the term, 39 Steps, implies. That aside, apart from the constant humour and laughter, it is a really impressive piece of theatrical management for which Nida Butt and her team deserve all the credit. Two of these are the railway train and car simulations, the former giving such a real effect, what with the roar of a steam locomotive just steaming out of a railway station with the rhythmic rocking the passengers are subjected to. The car simulation is entertaining too, reminiscent of a 1930s Laurel and Hardy blockbuster.


The most remarkable and adroit part of the production was the way all the cast members copied the typical English and Scottish accents. Farhad Lodhi’s typically English accent and his appearance just could never betray the fact that he was not English. It was a perfect copy of the stiff upper lip English accent. What was even more creditable was the typically Scottish accents of all the characters Hannay comes across in Scotland. They all speak with that typically Scottish burr of Edinburgh, something that really is so diverse from the English spoken south of the border, or the typical Glaswegian accent of Glasgow. These brands of English are so far away from the common perception of English. It goes to the credit of Nida Butt and is a tribute to her astute direction. It also goes to the credit of the characters who mastered the art of speaking with typically Scottish accents so fluently.


Perhaps what could be termed a masterpiece of theatrical technique was the aeroplane chase projected as a kind of a mime with the two aircraft being biplanes, something that was so commonplace in the 1930s. Biplanes outnumbered monoplanes at that time. This is a tribute to the director’s imaginative handling of the play as there were no helicopters, Awacs, or any other aircraft those days that we have today. In the 1930, biplanes were the order of the day. It was an astute piece of direction, taking into account the historical accuracy.


One could heap all the praise on Nida Butt and her Made For Stage productions team for this adroit production, giving the city’s theatre fans such a treat, a treat not only in the form of entertainment but also in the form of glimpses into history of an era that almost none of us are witness to, a wholesome mix of history and nostalgia.Monday’s show at the Arts Council was a donor appreciation night hosted by Friends of The Hunar Foundation.

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