Director and Adaptor: Chris Hawley
Reviewer: Helen Tope
First performed in 2019, the BlackBox Theatre Company’s production of The 39 Steps takes on the tale of espionage and imbues it with a broad-sided dash of comedy.
Adapted as an audio drama for the Living Record Festival, this version of The 39 Steps is re-routed to the winter of 1962. The UK is experiencing record snowfall, and parts of the country are cut off entirely. BlackBox Radio will be doing its bit by putting on a show.
Readying themselves for the broadcast, the team make final preparations. The parts are cast, and Brenda the tea lady is doling out biscuits. The producer Julian arrives to find that the snow is causing problems. The cast – Reg, George, Thelma – can’t get to the studio. Julian (played by Bruce McIntosh) isn’t worried as Terry, their cover for such an eventuality, is on his way. The phone rings. It isn’t good news.
It’s every producer’s nightmare. The play will go live to air in minutes, and with Julian taking on the role of Hannay himself, the other parts need to be cast. Brenda (Scarlett Briant) suggests Roy the studio technician (David McCulloch). He’s done a bit of Amateur Dramatics, and is “very good at voices”. There is no option but to assign Roy the other male roles. With Brenda being drafted in to perform the female roles (and the sound effects), the show begins.
The production stays largely true to the spirit of the John Buchan novel, with Richard Hannay’s brush with a political underworld beginning when his neighbour, Franklin Scudder, breaks into his flat. Scudder is the possession of information so top-secret, it is worth killing for. Hannay listens as Scudder reveals an anarchist plot to destabilise Europe. He is dubious, but lets Scudder stay in his flat overnight. The following morning, Hannay finds Scudder has been stabbed to death. Finding a notebook in Scudder’s jacket – full of encoded information – Hannay evades the police and heads North.
A classic story generally benefits from a classic re-telling, but with BlackBox Radio’s casting woes, all does not go to plan. Roy gamely attempts an American accent for Scudder, and Brenda gets her props mixed up. On the line “up with the lark”, we hear a duck call.
What ensues is a comedy of errors, with Julian trying to suppress his rage, as we move from blunder to blunder. With a strong The Play that Goes Wrong vibe, the makeshift cast give it their all. Roy (a brilliant McCulloch) in attempting the many accents in Buchan’s novel, makes up with enthusiasm what he lacks in accuracy. However, when Brenda steps up to the mic, she appears to the theatrical life born. Buchan’s world may have been happy for women to take a back seat, but growing in confidence, Brenda gives us definable female characters. Working the accents with arguably more success than Roy, Brenda is the breakout star.
This production, firmly tongue-in-cheek, plays up the Boys’ Own aspect of the 1915 story – Hannay’s decoding of Scudder’s notebook is worthy of MI5’s best. It is the exaggeration of Buchan’s style throughout that really amps up the comedy. As Julian, Brenda and Roy move with Herculean effort towards the conclusion, it is impossible not get drawn in. It is proof that, whether played straight or for laughs, this ‘ripping yarn’ has lost none of its touch.
Available here until 23 February 2021
The Living Record Festival runs here from 17 January to 22 February 2021