Thirty-nine steps to an unlikely theatrical triumph

Play that began life in draughty Yorkshire church halls with four actors, a stuffed dog and a very large sheet, takes Broadway by storm

By Andrew Johnson
Sunday 23 October 2011 02:34

New York is a long way from North Yorkshire, and Broadway a big step from Victoria Street in the town of Richmond, deep in the Yorkshire Dales.

Yet tonight both places will be holding their breath as Whoopi Goldberg takes the stage of the Radio City Music Hall in Manhattan to host the most prestigious awards in American theatre: the Tonys.

Nominated for Best Play, and a further five Tonys, is a work that began life funded by a £1,000 Yorkshire Arts Grant in 1995 and premiered in front of 90 people at the Georgian Theatre in Richmond, before embarking on a tour of village halls across the north of England.

Now 13 years later, The 39 Steps, an adaptation of the John Buchan novel, originally performed with just stepladders, planks and a big sheet, has swept through the West End, won a host of awards, including an Olivier, and taken New York by storm. The New York Post described it as the "most entertaining show on Broadway".

To win a Tony would crown a remarkable journey. Certainly, it is not what writers Nobby Dimon and Simon Corble expected when they began work on the project. "It is quite extraordinary," said Dimon, 55, in between rehearsals for The Prisoner of Zenda, his next production for North Country Theatre, the small group he founded to put on The 39 Steps. "It's just an incredible tale really, to think that something wowed them in village halls 10 years ago is now having great success in New York.

"Village halls are a seedbed of creativity," he added. "It's fantastic to see this flowering, but I'm happy in the seedbed."

A Production's progress: from Richmond to the Big Apple

Step 1. 1995: North Country Theatre Company founded by Nobby Dimon to tour small rural venues such as village halls and schools in North Yorkshire, Durham and the Border Country.

2. Dimon starts adapting John Buchan's 1915 novel 'The 39 Steps'.

3. Simon Corble hears of the project and offers to work for a share of future royalties – in effect, for free.

4. The two discuss scenarios and their favourite bits of the book and film versions on the phone.

5. Three weeks of brainstorming, improvising, writing and rehearsing with actors.

6. 2 May 1996: final coat of paint applied to set consisting mainly of stepladders, planks and sheets.

7. 3 May 1996: play makes its debut before 90 people at the Georgian Theatre Royal in Richmond. It uses four actors and a stuffed dog.

8. Play embarks on a short tour of village halls and schools

9. 25 May: the tour reaches Rosedale Abbey School Hall.

10. The tour ends at the Elite Cinema, Leyburn, as part of the Swaledale Festival.

11. Spring 1997: North Country Theatre mounts a second small-scale tour. The play is seen by someone from Perth Repertory Theatre, Scotland.

12. December 1997: Corble mounts a third tour with his own Manchester-based company.

13. Glowing review in 'The Manchester Evening News' during a three-week run at the Friends Meeting House.

14. The play is nominated for a 'Manchester Evening News' theatre award for Best of Fringe.

15. Perth Repertory produces the play.

16. It is seen by a London producer, Charles Vance.

17. January 1998: Corble takes his show to the London Fringe theatre, the Tabard.

18. Tabard wants to take it to the West End.

19. But Charles Vance also wants to buy the rights.

20. The playwrights go with Vance.

21. Agent appointed to negotiate with John Buchan's estate after his work comes back into copyright following a change in the law.

22. Show begins tour of repertory theatres throughout Great Britain under guidance of Vance.

23. Auberon Waugh sees it, and writes: "I have never known such happiness from a theatrical production."

24. It wins a Whatsonstage Theatre Goers' Award.

25. American producers fly over to see the show in Bury St Edmunds.

26. They fly home unimpressed.

27. 2002: producer Edward Snape buys the rights to the script.

28. It is suggested that Patrick Barlow, co-founder of the National Theatre of Brent, renowned for its successful yet small-scale productions – is invited to look at the script and take the role of Hannay.

29. 2002-04: two years of negotiations ensue with Ambassador's Theatre, Rank, who own the rights to the film, John Buchan's estate and the writers all trying to hammer out a deal.

30. 2004: Patrick Barlow rewrites the script, keeping the staging, scenes and low-scale feel, but basing it much more on the film.

31. Play is success at Yorkshire Playhouse and national tour.

32. Transfers to Tricycle Theatre in north London, where it is a hit.

33. Transfers to the Criterion.

34. 2007: Surprise winner of Olivier Award for Best New Comedy

35. Opens at Huntington Theatre in Boston, US.

36. Opens to rave reviews on Broadway.

37. April 2008: wins two prestigious Drama Desk Awards in New York.

38. Becomes a hit in Israel, South Africa, Finland, Greece, Italy, Germany and the Czech Republic, Istanbul, Korea, Australia (it opens in Spain later this year).

Step 39. Nominated for six Tony Awards, including best play.

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