DramaNorth East & YorkshireReview

The 39 Steps – Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough

Writer: Patrick Barlow

Adapted from Alfred Hitchcock’s film

Director: Paul Robinson

Designer: Helen Coyston

Reviewer: Ron Simpson

It’s good to see The 39 Steps back in North Yorkshire, in a production full of zip and imagination. Just over 20 years ago Richmond-based North Country Theatre toured Nobby Dimon and Simon Corble’s version for just four actors to huge success. Then Patrick Barlow of the National Theatre of Brent, an expert in creating comedy out of hapless actors doing their best, took the concept, adapted the script and conquered the West End for the best part of a decade.

The play is not an adaptation of John Buchan’s novel, more a small-scale home-made reproduction of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1935 film, in so many ways far more theatrical. Richard Hannay’s quest to track down the traitors and foreign spies who are attempting to share a military secret with a hostile power, is common to both novel and film, but by 1935 the shadow of the jackboot is looming. Perhaps more significantly, Hitchcock’s gift for bizarre spectacle re-shaped the story and a large part of the appeal of the stage version is wondering how Hannay is going to escape from a train on the Forth Bridge or navigate the Scottish moors handcuffed to Madeleine Carroll – the answer in both cases is most ingeniously, though it helps if you know the original!

The Scarborough production is apparently the first in the round which, presumably, makes it harder to suggest a pursuit on the roof of a railway carriage or an attack by a low-flying aeroplane. Paul Robinson uses the whole theatre, most imaginatively in the climax at the London Palladium, and relies on the alertness of the audience. This is one of those blink-and-you’ll-miss-it productions where there is always more than one thing, verbal or visual, going on.

The other “first” helps to give the production its unique tone. Normally a male actor plays Hannay, a female actor plays the important women in his story, and two men deal with the rest. Here these two parts are billed as Woman and Man, the first 50/50 gender split, claims Robinson, but more important is that Laura Kirman and Niall Ransome, who both play many parts of both sexes, are fellow-members of Mischief Theatre, and their superb team-work is at the heart of a gloriously silly production. They proudly present the show, circus ringmaster-style, traduce the Scots nation with innumerable grotesque caricatures, change character (and back again) mid-sentence, are disarmingly delighted when something goes right and attempt, with variable success, to curb each other’s excesses.

Sam Jenkins-Shaw is the perfect Richard Hannay. His pipe clenched in his mouth below his stiff upper lip, he epitomizes your square-jawed British hero with just a little taste for nightlife and the odd whisky. Nonchalant in the face of disaster, he is also an actor faced with impossible performance demands who has to wriggle himself from beneath a dead (female) agent or out through a tiny window. Jenkins-Shaw is a master of combined insouciance and panic. Amelia Donkor has the hardest task fitting in to the pattern of the production – neither a single part nor a series of jolly caricatures – but, as the three women Hannay encounters at the music hall, in the train and in a crofter’s cottage, she is always vivid and captures the acid wit required for Pamela.

Paul Robinson’s production is beautifully co-ordinated, though apparently shambolic, Helen Coyston’s designs are full of opportunities to make do and mend and Simon Slater’s music is a perfect fit. So much is done with wit, imagination and unfailing energy that it seems churlish to complain about an occasional tendency to get carried away by sheer exuberance, sometimes playing a situation once too often or stretching a gag beyond its natural length. Holiday-makers at Scarborough are guaranteed an evening of enormous fun; they might enjoy it even more at ten minutes shorter.

Runs in repertory until 23 August 2018 | Image: Contributed

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The Yorkshire & North East team is under the editorship of Jacob Bush. 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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