We caught up with the stars of the gripping comedy thriller, The 39 Steps to find out what it’s like to be one of four fearless actors playing 139 roles in this smash-hit Olivier Award-winning Best New Comedy.
What are the challenges of being multiple characters?
Nick Holder: It’s actually quite easy.
Greg Haiste: Yeah, we’ve got a really great backstage crew so you just walk in to the wings and get set upon by people who put your clothes on!
NH: We don’t do it!
GH: Initially the challenge is trying to distinguish between the different characters, physicality’s and accents. A lot of it is set in Scotland so you have to find distinctive Scottish accents.
NH: I found that when I read the script – so I’ve got to do a Scottish accent, no I’ve got to do THREE Scottish accents and I don’t even know one!
GH: It’s actually a thrill to play lots of different characters because you just get to…
NH: Show off!
GH: You even end up playing bits of the scenery at one point, you’re playing a bog, I’m playing a water feature, so it does sort of spiral out of control and that’s part of the joke.
It is a very energetic play with a very busy schedule for such a small company – how do you manage it?
Ben Righton: I think you learn what a serious problem is and what’s not. Your body gets in to the cycle of doing it. For the first month you literally feel jet lagged, sleeping through the days and then coming and doing it at night but then your body gets in to it and you develop a 39 Steps stamina which helps you through it.
NH: It’s quite taxing physically.
GH: We do a warm up each day.
NH: Yep, Star Jumps, or the alternative, gentle squats with arm raises…
GH: But if you’re going to do a work out every day you might as well do it when people are laughing at you!
It’s the kind of play where there are loads of opportunities for ad lobbing, how much of your own comedy do you bring to the performance and how do you keep it fresh?
GH: We play it slightly differently because different people laugh at different things really, but it’s a deceptively tight show actually.
BR: It’s very choreographed, it’s sort of like a dance really. If it looked like there was ad-libbing going on then we’ve succeeded because there wasn’t any. There’s that saying that comedy is a serious business and the idea is to make it look like it is chaos when in actual fact it’s very, very precise.
GH: But having said that, each gag you’re doing you’re playing it according to how the audience react.
During rehearsals, how do you keep focused with it being such a slapstick comedy?
NH: We don’t do rehearsals now, but if you don’t keep focused the wheels fall off completely and then you spend the next five minutes trying to catch up. It’s not one of those shows where you can jump straight back on. If somebodies waiting for a cue and you knock it out by two seconds by not doing something it’s an absolute nightmare.
BR: This is a well-oiled West End hit. There is little time to start exploring your inner clown, because you’ve just gotta get it right.
GH: It feels like sort of an acrobatic thing where if you miss someone’s hand then you fall to the ground. You have to get a balance of comedy and concentration. It’s 45 minutes of madness then another 45 minutes of madness.
All of you have worked on stage and screen, which do you prefer and why?
NH: It’s different at different times. You can think ‘I’ve done a lot of filming; I’d really like to get in front of an audience’.
BR: I just did TV for three years and I was craving an audience. You don’t have as much control with screen, you do it, you don’t hear about it for a year and by that point someone’s cut it to bits. You’ve had no say or control over that and then you look at it and think ‘hmmmm, that’s not how I saw it’, whereas on stage you are the master of your own destiny.
The 39 Steps is a modern day take on a classic Hitchcock movie and many of his other pieces are mentioned throughout. How familiar were you with his works and did it influence anything?
NH: I’m a big fan of the film. He’s an extraordinary man, brilliant films, the camera work as we all know is extraordinary.
BR: The two actors who played Hannay and Pamela (in the original 39 Steps film) got handcuffed together and he just locked the key away. They spent the whole day handcuffed together. At the end of the day they were so sick of each other, and then he did the scene, there’s proper irritation with each other.
GH: I love Hitchcock. It’s a lovely film (The 39 Steps) and this version is much more like the film than the book.
BR: He was a bit of a game changer.
And finally, why is it good night out?
GH: It’s really really fast paced fun.
NH: You can bring anyone to see it. Anybody you want without risk of offence.
BR: It’s completely joyous, there is nothing aimed to offend. It’s displaying different types of theatre, loads of comedy, you couldn’t come out of this show doing anything other than smiling. Even if you’re not into the theatre, I think The 39 Steps is the perfect show to go and watch.
Now you’ve heard about it from the stars of the show, see it for yourself. Tickets are on sale here.