The 39 Steps – Old Joint Stock, Birmingham

Writer: Patrick Barlow from the book by John Buchan
Director: Adam Lacey
Reviewer: Selwyn Knight

John Buchan’s book, The Thirty-Nine Steps was a trailblazer in many ways – Buchan described it as his first “shocker”, in which the events, twists and turns are barely believable, and it set the standard for the “man on the run” plotline. The hero, Richard Hannay, is the epitome of stiff upper lip Britishness and the values of self-reliance and placing one’s country and the greater good ahead of oneself.

It has spawned a number of film and television adaptations, with the most famous probably being Hitchcock’s film of 1935 featuring Robert Donat as Hannay. It is this adaptation that forms the basis of Patrick Barlow’s stage version, based itself on an earlier version written by Simon Corble and Nobby Dimon and now presented at the Old Joint Stock. The Old Joint Stock is developing its production arm and this production of The 39 Steps is produced entirely in-house.

Barlow’s version takes full note that the events it depicts are ridiculously unlikely and turns the whole into a quickfire farce. Bored of life in London, Hannay visits a music hall show. While there, shots are fired and a mysterious and glamorous woman, Anabella Schmidt, pleads for help. She accompanies him back to his flat and tells him something of her mission to foil a dastardly plot before being mysteriously stabbed. Hannay takes up her mission leading him to Scotland where he meets many odd characters and is pursued for the murder before ultimately solving the mystery and saving the day.

Using a cast of only four, Hannay (David Claridge) his romantic interests  (Hannah Fretwell with the help of several wigs), and two ‘clowns’ playing everyone else ( Lisa MacGregor and Adam David Elms),  the play is written as a madcap romp as maximum humorous effect is wrung from the unlikely events and bizarre coincidences. Claridge’s Hannay is well judged, playing him totally straight for the most part and letting the natural humour of the script do the work. Fretwell’s ongoing role of Pamela, who is inexplicably immune to Hannay’s charms and who somehow finds herself on the run with him, is lovely. Their relationship is well drawn and the humour flows naturally, for example, when they are forced to pretend to be newlyweds in a remote hotel. They share some great moments of physical theatre, for example, when trying to cross a stile while handcuffed together.

Elms and MacGregor, too, show an aptitude for physical comedy as they leap on and off stage, also doing much of the scene-shifting as the action moves on. McGregor is full of swivel-eyed lunacy, while Elms also brings menace to the rôle of the criminal mastermind. Both clowns cope well with the frequent need to play multiple characters onstage at once providing some nicely choreographed comedic moments.

Like much farce, The 39 Steps is a very technical piece, relying on sharp timing and brisk scene changes. It is here that the Old Joint Stock’s production falls a little short. Scene changes, for example, are slower than they could be and are accompanied by bits of onstage business that lack snap and affect the pace and energy. It is not clear whether this is a response to the particular constraints of the small venue with its wide, narrow shape or if it is a deliberate directorial decision.

Nevertheless, this is an entertaining night allowing us to do what we do best: poke a little gentle fun at ourselves and have a good laugh in the process.

Runs until 24 December 2016 | Image: Contributed

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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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