By Huang Beihua (20A03A), Sophia He (20S03H), and Mah Xiao Yu (20A01B)
Photographs courtesy of Lin Yutong (19S06F), Syu Rui Ying (20S06M), Joel Leong (20S03O) and Claire Ngern (20S03N) of Raffles Photographic Society
Love, mystery, and espionage: most would think of James Bond and his many, many Bond girls, (hey, You Only Live Twice!
Just kidding, Raffles Press does not approve of polyamory.) but Raffles Players presented us with something new—their very own comedic rendition of the highly acclaimed 1935 film, The 39 Steps.
The adventure began from the moment audience members stepped into the front of house, where they were transported into 1910 England, the world of The 39 Steps. Members of Players handed out copies of The Daily Express (programme booklets) and the tickets, too, added to the allure in their resemblance to train tickets, promising to take the audience on an exciting adventure far away. Furthermore, a board lined in green felt were 38 envelopes marked with Players’ names, some already bursting with fan mail. Pinned on another board were multiple mock posters, including many “Wanted” and “Missing” ones showcasing the cast and crew, even a “Monster spotted” notice featuring our beloved Kuang Shane Qi (Press’ former Vice Chair (Training)).
The play follows largely from the plot of the Hitchcock film—though with ten times the humour and a hundred times the diversity (it passes the Bechdel test and features a multiracial cast). The adventure begins when Richard Hannay (Kevin Chiramal, 19S06S), an ordinary Londoner with not much going on in his life, helps counter-intelligence agent Annabella Schmidt (Naia Nathan, 19A01A) escape from two hitmen (A. Ganeshaa, 19S03G, and Beth Lim, 20S03I). She reveals to him her mission to stop the mysterious “39 Steps” (roll credits) from stealing vital British military intelligence, only to be stabbed to death that very night. The comedic and dramatic take on the source material demonstrates itself in full bloom to the audience from the very beginning. Collapsing on the sofa was not all to Schmidt’s death: as Hannay ventured towards her hand for a map clutched within, she theatrically jerked several times while clasping tightly to the map; it was not until she settled in an exaggerated catatonic state was the affair truly over. The description here may be macabre, but the enacted scene was—as the audience proved with their laughs—more amusing than frightening on stage.
“It is up to us, Mr Hannay! […] They will stop at nothing and there is no turning back.”— Annabella Schmidt (Naia Nathan, 19A01A)
And so begins a riveting tale of wit and romance. Hannay, now a fugitive accused of Schmidt’s murder and the hitmen’s new target, sets out for “Alt-na-Shellach” in the Scottish Highlands at Schmidt’s direction. Through trains and across mountains, Hannay survives countless threats such as a storm of bullets from a police aircraft (an ingeniously crafted scene indeed) but also the kind help of an Edinburgh crofter’s wife and Pamela (Jannatun Tajrian, 20S03A), who he kisses to distract the police. And at what seems like the very end of it, he arrives at Alt-na-Shellach to find the respectable Professor Jordan (Manish Warrier, 20S03H) and his wife (Shweta Kunaciilan, 19A01D).
Respectable, that is, till he reveals his leadership of the 39 Steps and shoots Hannay. It is a plot twist that some may have seen coming, but what now? It is at this climax that the first act draws to its conclusion, leaving us with bated breath—how would this play continue in its second act, with its protagonist now dead? Would the second act just be a victory lap for the despicable Professor Jordan?
Fret not, right at the beginning of the second act is the welcomed news of Hannay’s surprising (or maybe not so much) survival—all thanks to the hymn book in his borrowed coat. His victory does not last long, however, as he realises the policemen have already been bought over by the Professor to take him down and he is forced to flee for his life yet again. He encounters an old frenemy next: Pamela. At first, she innocently assists the hitmen in capturing Hannay, but after a long day together (including but not limited to: handcuffs, a hotel room with a single bed, stockings, and two hitmen apologising profusely into a telephone) she finally believes his story and agrees to help him. The enemies-to-lovers trope and the hotel room with a single bed, while somewhat cliche, were well-delivered and added to the humour of the play.
It is at the next rendition of Mr Memory’s fantastical display that the strings of fate draw both the duo and the Professor together. It is revealed that the coveted formula of The 39 Steps was in fact in Mr Memory’s mind all along, but Mr Memory is prevented from revealing it in its full glory—by a fatal shot to the chest. In the midst of the chaos that ensues, Hannay wrestles the trigger-happy Professor in the viewing box. Ironically, it is the Professor’s own gun that is his undoing. After an accidental shot to the chest and an unbelievable amount of screaming, the Professor finally submits to death.
In the last moments of the play and Mr Memory’s life, he recites the painfully memorised formula to Hannay, Pamela, and the compere. Albeit tragic, Mr Memory’s final act impressed the audience with a last bit of humour as the play reached its conclusion. Watching Su Jean rapidly regurgitate line upon line of physics formulae was an experience all by itself: one could not help but wonder a) how she spoke so fast without a slip and b) the effort she put into memorising more science than a physics teacher could ever hope for. Well, maybe Su Jean is portraying Mr Memory because she is Mr Memory.
Now acquitted of all charges, Hannay resumes his civilian life back in his London apartment. And as a final touching revelation, Pamela takes his side, while the rest of the cast stream in, showering them with flowers as the curtains close—and the applause began, not to fade for a long time.
“It’s really well done,” remarked Ellery Tan (20S06L), “[Players] did a good job despite limitations like budget, and the half-joking aesthetic played to their strengths.” Indeed, what stood out to the enthralled audience was, in the words of Milton Lee (20S06A), “an excellent use of physical humour”, as Players cleverly brought forward a stunning array of otherwise difficult scenes despite restrictions in manpower and in budget. Where Hannay was meant to jump out of a window, Kevin held up a large picture frame and flung it over his body, while passengers on a train rocked back and forth to simulate their movement along uneven tracks.
The greatest testament to Players’ unique style and astounding acting, however, came in the first act, as Hannay’s train out of London was ready to depart: two actresses, (Loh Su Jean, 19A01A, and Liyana Afiqah, 20S03I), each in uniform, alternated between different roles as quickly as a switch of their hats. A friendly station officer could be seen giving directions to a radiantly dressed Mrs Nicola Perry in one instant, yet, upon swapping her white hat with an officer’s cap, Liyana stood before us as a police officer. The creative and unorthodox on-stage portrayal of actions left its mark on the atmosphere of the play: while still a tale of espionage, it is unabashedly one that carries itself with a fresh, invigorating pinch of salt. The opportunity to enjoy a riveting story while laughing in lighthearted amusement instead of hyperventilating in unbearable tension was nothing but appreciated by the audience—as Lim Zheng Wei (20A03A) remarked, “it’s beautiful.”
No play—yes, even one with a cast as talented as this—can make do without its sets team, and here, players shined just as you would expect. Among the many awe-striking gems of their hard work, our favourite had to be those used in the plane scene: as a shadow puppet figure that was Hannay ran across mountains that were the shadow puppet screen, a see-saw set imaginatively illustrated the aircraft in hot pursuit, tipping from side to side as the plane swerved through valleys.
These sets came at no small cost to the team responsible for their design and realisation. As Kuang Shane Qi (19A13A) testified, this production “required the most logistical planning in the history of Raffles Players”; given that it is based off a movie, the intense scene changes commonplace in film were a challenge to translate into a play. Adaptation and innovation were essential: solid blocks used to depict train seats were replaced with rostrums to enable the actors the crawl beneath them during Hannay’s escape, in imitation of the high-stakes chase scene in the original film. Furthermore, the manor at Alt-na-shellach was portrayed through moving platforms, with stagehands dragging them across the stage while Hannay and Mrs Jordan walked in a novel depiction of movement and space. Subtle practicalities also complicated sets’ already arduous task: to conserve precious backstage space in the face of the myriad props used, those moving panels were the same ones as the walls of the McGarrigle hotel, with only detachable wallpapers distinguishing one from another.
With that said, let us not forget the vivid soundscape created by the lights and sounds department, from the original suite from The Thirty Nine Steps to “Scotland the Brave”, a righteous piece by the Scottish Bagpipes Highlight Pipes, painstakingly put together through afternoons of sampling barely distinguishable variations of phone rings and train whistles. You, too, can now sample a piece of Hannay’s world (or relive it, if you watched the play) at this link: https://open.spotify.com/user/ifa.h/playlist/2CaZ0U2Wdd0D7TtSHq50Md?si=3nHhg9qkQne1NnMSBb39-w
Despite what the morning announcements might have told you, this slightly surreal, somewhat farcical, yet thoroughly refreshing take on the story was nothing close to a least of all evils as a school club struggled to weigh its options against a lack of resources. It was, instead, a team of brilliantly innovative talents spellbinding the audience with the coalescence of their unique perspective on theatre and their single-minded dedication to their craft—a concoction that captured hearts, captured minds, and certainly quite a few laughs. As Joel Leong (20S03O) so succinctly put it, “this is definitely worth more than the ticket price.”
And what a small price to pay indeed, to bear witness to the fruition of months and months of hard work, to the product of an ingenious fusion of film and theatre, to Raffles Players: The 39 Steps!
Actors and Actresses
Kevin Chiramal as Richard Hannay
Naia Nathan as Annabella Schmidt and Margaret
Jannatun Tajrian as Pamela
Manish Warrier as Professor Jordan and Crofter
Shweta Kunaciilan as Mrs Jordan and Radio Announcer
Loh Su Jean as Mr Memory and ensemble
Liyana Afiqah as Compere and ensemble
A. Ganeshaa as Mrs McGarrigle and ensemble
Beth Lim as Mr McGarrigle and ensemble
Mr Jarrod Lee
Production Manager and Publicity
Sets and Stagehands
Mr Gerald Choo
Kuang Shane Qi
Low Jia Yi
Tay Xi Teng
Fang Yi Hang
Naadiah Bte Mohamed Ibrahim
Lights and Sounds
Yu Ke Dong
Nursyarifah Bte Abdullah
Manuella Marie Pereira