How four students are taking on challenge of Buchan’s 39 Steps

The 39 Steps performed by Eastbourne College students
The 39 Steps performed by Eastbourne College students

Thirty-Nine Steps, one hundred and thirty-nine characters and a hundred frantic costume changes: a group of Eastbourne College students next week will somehow turn the improbable into the feasible.

The famous John Buchan thriller, full of derring-do heroes, dastardly villains and beautiful-but-hapless women, will be brought vividly to the stage in a wholly student-led production.

In best Buchan spirit - writes Herald reviewer Kevin Anderson - I tracked down the four conspirators, all sixth-formers at the College. Two of them, Megan Good and Bertie Beeching, are studying A-level Drama, with half an eye on UCAS applications and the future - but more importantly, with a gleeful appetite for this audacious project.

“I’m applying to universities to read English and Drama,” says Megan. “I might then look at a postgraduate acting course, but that’s further off. We are doing this production for experience but also for the sheer fun of it! We have questioned our sanity once or twice, but we know we can pull it off!”

Why The 39 Steps? “Well, the West End production has been ground-breaking and totally inspiring to anyone who has seen it. It is really challenging because of its flexibility and break-neck pace, but it gives so much scope. And if they can do it with a tiny cast, then so can we!”

There will also be proper recognition of their efforts. Once assessed externally, the project will qualify the Fearless Four for the prestigious Arts Gold Award - a kind of theatrical equivalent of the Duke of Edinburgh Award, and just as demanding in its own right.

The students have ownership of the production from start to finish. Preposterously, they launched into it only a month ago, at the start of this school term, and the show actually opens next Tuesday! In her producer role, Megan undertakes much of the off-stage planning, while director Bertie is swiftly acquiring that key directorial skill: “I’m the one who has to tell them to do it all again - but this time better! But since I’m also in the thick of it on stage, I can’t really pull rank. We all pool ideas.”

The benign presence of College Head of Drama Tim Marriott stays quietly in the background. Tim and his colleagues are happy - and perfectly confident - to leave both planning and execution to the students. “They can call on some technical and practical support, as any director would do, but in terms of concept and delivery they stand or fall by their own judgement, and that is the real value of the project.”

Joining the thespian band are musician and actor James Tomlinson - who like Bertie has already caught the eye in EODS productions, notably in the recent Twelfth Night - and Ed Towey, who bashfully describes himself as “the supporting cast”, but has already delighted audiences in previous College productions, and will unflinchingly include a few female roles in his portfolio for The 39 Steps. “Well, with one girl and three guys, somebody has to do it!”

The show, which runs for three nights, is performed in support of St Wilfrid’s Hospice. “It is a very local cause, close to so many people’s hearts, and a couple of us have had family reasons to be grateful to St Wilfrid’s,” explains Ed.

And with that, they are off - probably to a history lecture, a maths lesson or a rugby fixture, and maybe with a final few lines of dialogue still to nail as they go, or a quick props list to write. No rest for the wicked - nor for multi-talented and inexhaustible young actors. If this is a sample, then Eastbourne College drama is in great shape.

39 Steps at the College Theatre Tues 13, Wed 14 and Thurs 15 Oct at 7.30pm, tickets via boxoffice@eastbourne-college.co.uk or 01323 452255.