In January 2022, I directed the Crosby House play of The 39 Steps, adapted by Patrick Barlow from a 1935 film version, which itself was an adaptation of the well-known 1915 book by John Buchan. The plot follows Richard Hannay, an ordinary, innocent man who becomes caught up in a murder investigation, and flees by train to Scotland, where he attempts to hide from the police. The play follows a slightly altered version, mixing the serious plot line with slapstick physical comedy, deliberate errors and even the odd corny joke.
After my Housemaster, Major Mansergh suggested the idea of directing a House play I was slightly daunted by the prospect and unsure about the quality of what we would produce. I wanted something funny, but something that also had a strong storyline. The 39 Steps seemed perfect – its comedy is not overly stupid, but instead is integrated into an already well-known plot.Charlie, Crosby
Naturally, one of the first things I did was run a set of auditions, and I whittled down about twenty-five interested people to a group of nine. One of the selling points of the play version of The 39 Steps is that over 150 characters are played, in theory, by four actors. In order for this to be a successful House production, I wanted more people involved than that, so I spent most of one exeat weekend devising a complex spreadsheet detailing every scene that every character was in, and painstakingly working out who could play which characters without them clashing
at any point. I decided we would not ask a girls’ House to lend us an actor, as some Houses do, but would have some Crosby boys dress up as girls.
The only near-miss that I had to stick with was the character of Annabella Schmidt, who is murdered and dies on Hannay’s armchair, and in the next scene becomes a milkman, and then returns for the next scene as Annabella’s corpse, supposedly in the same place she was left beforehand. Happily, we were able to style this out as one of the “deliberate mistakes”, and Annabella comes back onto the stage with a glass of whisky before suddenly realising she was supposed to be dead and rushes back to the chair.
After distributing the scripts, the next task was one over which I had less control: line-learning. The 39 Steps has a chunky script, and my cast had a tough job of learning the entire play. But they did manage it, despite a few tense moments along the way when I wondered whether we would get to where we needed to be.
Philip Tomkinson, playing Hannay, managed not only to learn a lengthy monologue for the beginning of the play, but also a speech for a political rally lasting several minutes. By the run-up to the production he was even able to correct everyone else’s lines when they made a mistake, and fill in for them when they weren’t there. My principal piece of advice to any House directors is to do your best to get lines learnt early, but accept that it won’t be perfect. We know what Oundelians are like with deadlines; it will all turn out OK in the end.
We had a job on our hands returning from the Christmas holidays with two and a half weeks left to stage the play. Up until then, we had been rehearsing with scripts in the House library for 10-15 minutes every evening, and we had done a Zoom run – through before New Year. It was now time to step it up a gear. We started to think about blocking and stage direction for the first time while rehearsing in the Stahl studios with a few of the props that we would go on to use in the real thing. It was not until eight days prior to our dress rehearsal that we were able to start rehearsing on the Stahl stage.
The first five or six days were some of the most painful of my time at Oundle. This is because we had to not only organise stage directions, but coordinate with sound and lighting, and ensure that the story and the comedy was not being lost by too much concentration on the technicalities.Charlie, Crosby
As we ramped up into the final week, 5-10pm rehearsals were now an everyday occurrence. I thought that finally, after weeks of worry, this could go quite well. Thankfully, as is always the way, our hours of hard work paid off, and the dress rehearsal on the Tuesday was fantastic. When I woke up on the morning of 19 January, I was suddenly slightly nervous that the result of all my effort in the last month or so was being performed to the public that day. I called everyone to the Stahl at 5pm, ran a few rehearsals and sent everyone to the fantastic wardrobe team to be transformed.
After a brief warm-up on stage, it was time for me to become one of the audience. That was a truly bizarre feeling; almost like giving up one’s own child and suddenly having no control any more. At the same time, a strong dress rehearsal had convinced me that I could trust the cast and crew to pull it off, and so I took my seat in the auditorium and tried my best to relax. I flinched at every slight mistake, although the audience would not have noticed. The performance was a roaring success, and we did it all again the next night.Charlie, Crosby
On the second night, we were lucky enough to have a visit from John Buchan’s granddaughter, Ursula Buchan, who has written a biography about John Buchan. Before the play began, she spoke to the audience for a few minutes about Buchan’s life, his work and legacy.
During the production, I did an interview in which I was asked a number of questions about the experience of directing a House play. I emphasised the House spirit that it fostered, the friendships that were formed across year groups, and the challenges of directing my own peers. Despite the intense schedule and hard work required, all of these things made directing the play all the more enjoyable, and the reaction of the audience made it all the more satisfying. The process of directing a House play is by no means a walk in the park, but it is an extraordinarily rewarding experience.
So, would I do it again? Let’s not go that far. But it is something I would encourage everyone to have a go at if you get the opportunity. Whether it is directing, acting or helping backstage, it is a memory that will stick with you forever.
There are several people to thank in this process: my Housemaster, Major Mansergh, and deputy, Mr Arnold, for all their help, the extraordinary cast and backstage crew who made the show the success it was and Ivan Quetglas and his team for the wonderful photography. Most importantly, though, the incredible team at the Stahl. Naomi Jones, who helped me get the initial planning in order, Emma Hildebrandt, for administering ticket sales and creating our programme, Paul Laughton for working on lighting and production, Rebecca Cox on sound, Joanne Henderson for the incredible outfits, Max Richardson for running the filming, and of course George Mullen for his work on the set and for his numerous late nights waiting for us to finish rehearsing in the final weeks. All of these people worked extremely hard to make it a success.