The 39 Steps – Blue Orange Theatre, Birmingham

Reviewer: John Kennedy

Writer: John Buchan

Adaptor: Patrick Barlow

Director: Simon Ravenhill

Functioning on the higher-end of Michael Green’s 1960s definitive Art Of Coarse Acting, spectrum, Blue Orange Theatre’s in-house, post-Lockdown ensemble repertoire features their mischievous take on Buchan’s seemingly evergreen eponymous novel, celebrating their 10th year Anniversary.

It’s all loosely based, post-Indiana-Jones, wild-goose chased, slap-schtick silly giddy fun – and where they still use telephones, though strictly speaking, not Bakelite period-authentic, but given reality being abandoned very soon into the show, that’s small beer. Talking of alcohol-based beverages, Richard Hannay, back from the Cape, is bored, bored, bored until a frothy, highly agitated platinum-blonde bursts in, canes his single-malt with the thirst of a dredger, spiels a cock and bull yarn about German spies ’n’ all then promptly gets a dagger in the back. The chase is on!

Part the British Empire strikes back against beastly Fifth-columnist Huns, part Mac-cliche road-movie with jolly good fun spoof-parodies drawing on Hitchcock’s iconic, generously reimagined 1930s classic Highland romp, there’s much to enjoy.

Setting aside (with considerable generosity) the over-bearing cliched kitschy ‘Scotch-hoots-mon’ Hale and Pace hilarity driven stock-characters, there’s a need of judicious editing: at near two hours including the interval there’s too much reliance on set-piece Hitchcock parody. The gauche-tease suggestive sexuality of the 30s film with Pamela and Hannay Highland hotel bedroom handcuffed caused a considerable censorial frisson at the time. And no doubt some momentary relief for the hard-pressed local sheep. But here, it is more a clumsy pastiche, over-cooked, whereas in the preceding set-piece, the bickering couple executes an exquisite footpath-stile hand-cuffed ballet. All of this, to great frustration, gains but a chuckle when there’s sadly very few in the auditorium to appreciate it.

An incredible amount of effort, imagination and expertise have gone into crafting this production, the technical synchronisation alone is of an exceptionally high order indeed. The constant juggling of transition set-props can be distracting at times notwithstanding their mind-boggling adaptability best enjoyed when they transform into the hostage get-away car.

With an audience to bounce off its shameless naughty disregard for the ‘fourth-wall’ protocols of audience distance, let alone the groaning gag winks at the tech-booth, there is much to enjoy in this escapist, on-the-run pun-laden hell-for-leather heather-based squeaky-wheeled roller-coaster ride amongst the glens.

Perhaps even finger-on-the-zeitgeist, Education Secretary, Gavin Williamson, will soon be imposing the eponymous novel on the schools’ curriculum believing it to be a moral-fibre strengthening latest Jordan Peterson anti-woke polemic. Who knows?

Runs until 18 September 2021

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Hitchcock 'n’ bull parody paradise

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The Central team is under the editorship of Selwyn Knight. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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