The 39 Steps – The Barn Theatre, Cirencester

Writer: Patrick Barlow

Director: Joseph O’Malley

Reviewer: Scott Matthewman

The creative history of this comedic production of The 39 Stepsis an interesting one. This parody of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1935 film – itself a loose adaptation of John Buchan’s novel, published some 20 years earlier – first saw fruit in a version by Simon Corbie and Nobby Dimon, who retold the tale of dashing hero Richard Hannay’s encounters with a mysterious group of fascist conspirators as a comedy romp for just four actors.

That original concept was rewritten by Patrick Barlow, and his version is the one which won an Olivier Award in 2007 and took up residence in London’s Criterion Theatre for nine years. While it may have closed in 2015, its shadow looms large: the anarchic storytelling and carefully contrived “cock-ups” are observable in Mischief Theatre’s … Goes Wrong franchise and, more closely, in their The Comedy About a Bank Robbery which now occupies this play’s former Criterion home.

But after its long West End run and several UK tours of larger venues, it is interesting to see how a play which normally requires a large stage for all its prop-heavy sketches fares in a space the size of Cirencester’s Barn, which lacks the sort of wing space that a larger venue may have to accommodate windows, lampposts, armchairs and the like.

The good news is that the comedy survives the transition to a smaller space remarkably intact. Thanks to Barlow’s tight plotting and heavy reliance on props and quick changes – all of which require items to be at exactly the right place, at exactly the right time – this becomes a show where the director’s job is to ensure that the furniture doesn’t bump into the actors, rather than the other way around.

This Joseph O’Malley manages admirably, to the extent that only one who has seen West End director Maria Aitken’s version numerous times might notice the few occasions where the original production nailed the comic timing rather better. The physicality of Hannay’s escape across the tops of railway carriages, for example – as played out by Max Hutchinson’s Hannay leaping from luggage trunk to luggage trunk, madly flapping his greatcoat as if in high winds – does not quite manage the effect as well as it could have.

But for every one of those slight niggles for someone who has seen this play so many times before, there are many more where the cast gets it right. Jonathan Bourne and Colin Elmer, who play nearly all of the show’s other characters, make a terrific double act, whether as multiple characters on Hannay’s train or the bizarre owners of the B&B where Hannay and the beautiful Pamela to whom (for reasons too convoluted to explain even to someone who’s seen the play) he is handcuffed hideout.

As for that woman, Tricia Adele-Turner plays the three femmes fatales with aplomb, from the mysterious Annabella Schmidt whose murder kicks off the play’s plot, to shepherd’s wife Margaret and the aforementioned Pamela. It is in this latter role that she can Hutchinson get the opportunity to act as a double act, working well together to elicit the best laughs from her haughtiness and his misogynistic dismissiveness.

It is Huthchinson’s show, though, as the only member of the cast to play a single role throughout. His Hannay is, as Barlow’s script dictates, aloof and detached from the world, while still being completely assured of his white male privilege attorney every turn. Hutchinson achieves the requisite level of physicality necessary for all the slapstick to pay off – and even proves adept at putting down the odd impromptu heckle when the need arises.

And while the show’s climax, set in a theatre, suffers somewhat from the Barn’s lack of Matcham-style interiors with their boxes and multiple audience levels (something the Criterion production could lean upon with alacrity) the show has, by this point, succeeded in sweeping the audience up along with it.

As a consequence, the Barn demonstrates that despite Barlow taking Corbie and Dimon’s idea and making it bigger, The 39 Steps is a show which can, and does, succeed on a smaller stage.

Continues until August 10 2019 | Image: Contributed

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