ComedyDramaNorth East & YorkshireReview

The 39 Steps – Lyceum Theatre, Sheffield

Director: Maria Aitken

Writer: Patrick Barlow adapted from the book by John Buchan

Reviewer: Jim Gillespie

A much-loved original turned into a period piece ripe for mockery. Well, it could be anything from Brief Encounter or Pride and Prejudice (with or without zombies) to the remake of Dad’s Army. In fact, it is the touring production of The 39 Steps based on the 1935 Hitchcock film classic.

Almost everything is played for comic effect, with a very small cast performing multiple roles to maximize the silliness, and dramatic set-pieces reduced to miniature versions of the original. It is a route much travelled by everyone from the Reduced Shakespeare Company downwards. Because it works; and it is popular.

The storyline is preserved intact. Bored Canadian Richard Hannay, becomes embroiled in an espionage plot in London on the eve of war. Implicated in the murder of a beautiful female spy, he has to flee arrest and head for Scotland to unmask the spies and prove his own innocence. Jumping from a train on the Forth Bridge to escape the police, he heads on foot across the Highlands to find the spymaster. He stops off to romance a bible-bashing crofters wife and ends up handcuffed to a glamorous blonde, with whom he is forced to share a (chaste) bed. Hannay finally gets his man, and his woman, at the London Palladium where a bullet-ridden Mr. Memory reveals the secret formula of the 39 Steps: The “MacGuffin” which has sustained the plot.

This production is slick and energetic. Most of the action sequences are in the first half of the play, as Hannay is chased over train roofs and Scottish moors. The relative calm of the McGarrigle Hotel provides little more than brief respite before we are racing down to London for the final denouement. Hannay’s romantic brushes with femme fatale Annabella, homely Margaret, and blonde bombshell Pamela are the briefest of encounters before the pell-mell pursuit is re-started.

Timing is everything, and this is true not only of the line delivery and costume swaps but also the interaction between cast and technical support. Sound effects, voice-overs, back projections and spotlighting complement the urgency of the drama, and are immaculately choreographed. So when the lights fail to come up on Hannay’s exchanges with the milkman, it is assumed to be deliberate, providing an opportunity for a scripted ad-lib.

This was not the only tweak to Patrick Barlow’s script, but none was gratuitous or played to the gallery, and all enhanced the original. Barlow shoe-horned a number of references to other Hitchcock films into the show, but this production managed to throw Vertigo, Psycho, and The Birds into the mix, with a series of clever visual or musical references. In a play with so much played to the limit, this never felt like excess.

This is very much a team event, particularly for Hannay’s supporting actors. They play a myriad of roles, sometimes two or three in as many minutes, as policemen morph into crofters, porters, or politicians. Mostly seamless and very funny, no more so than when the two clowns represent natural obstacles to Hannay’s progress across the moors. Andrew Hodges and Rob Whitcomb acquit themselves well, but some of the accents were poorly differentiated. Olivia Greene, the only female in the cast of four, had more opportunity to delineate her characters and did so convincingly. Richard Ede, as Hannay, sometimes let his jaw unclench enough for the 21st Century to be audible in his unclipped accent, but he usually maintained his stiff upper lip, topped, naturally, with his extremely attractive pencil moustache. Importantly, Richard managed to convey Hannay’s vulnerability, despite his bravado. When he finds love at the play’s conclusion, the audience rejoices because they had recognised the orphan boy’s loneliness.

The set is minimal. Everything is created from packing cases and ladders, assisted by superb sound and light effects, and the willing imagination of an audience. The exception is a false proscenium arch complete with theatre boxes, cleverly fixed within the Lyceum’s own stage frontage, to create the music hall and London Palladium. It is to the great credit of the designers that the additions fitted so naturally into their surroundings.

The Lyceum stage is a vast open space, and there were times when some actors’ lines were lost in the fly space above the stage. This will not be an issue in all venues, and did nothing to dampen the enthusiasm of the audience at the Lyceum. Love was all around.

Runs until 20 February 2016 | Image: Dan Tsantilis

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