Writer: John Buchan
Adapted by: Patrick Barlow
Director: Maria Aitken
Reviewer: Iain Sykes
Since its first publication just over a century ago, John Buchan’s adventure spy novel, The 39 Steps, has not only formed the basis for several films but also this spoof stage production which is itself celebrating over a decade in the spotlight. Adapted by Patrick Barlow but based around the original novel and heavily influenced by Alfred Hitchcock’s 1935 film version (Hitchcock gets the credit on the programme cover), charm, wit and parody abound in equal measures in an audience-pleasing evening.
Setting out for a carefree evening at a London theatre leads Richard Hannay (Richard Ede) into an adventure involving mysterious women, lingerie salesman, German spies, Scottish farmers and local politicians. Yet this array of characters is handled beautifully by just a four-strong cast. Only Ede sticks with one character throughout – his dashingly dapper, handsome, pencil moustached, stiff upper lipped fugitive holds the play together from the streets of London to the wilds of the Scottish Highlands. Olivia Greene gets to play sultry, frustrated and winsomely falling in love as Annabella, Margaret and Pamela. But the most fun to be had comes thanks to Andrew Hodges and Rob Whitcomb as Man 1 &2 who spend the evening in a whirl of quick changes. Not just of hats, wigs and coats (and dresses) but of split second changes of accent, character and gender. The whole play is perfectly written and the comic timing of all four cast members is spot on, aided by Maria Aitken’s sharp direction
Playing it earnestly for laughs is what this production does best and Peter McKintosh’s delightful, deliberately minimal, and small scale set design is a wonderful place to set it. A toy train trundles across the stage to designate the journey to the Highlands, a cluster of chairs is hastily assembled as a car, a hotel wall becomes a wardrobe becomes a bed, and the Forth Bridge is less than realistically created by two pairs of step ladders and a plank. All of which becomes part of the joke to which the audience readily relates. In fact we relate to two stories in one. The ripping mystery thriller yarn, first put down on paper by Buchan, survives intact and is more than enhanced by the sub-plot of the “mend and make do” theatrical setting.
Delightful and ever so slightly ridiculously silly throughout, with its madcap humour, fast pace, fine performances and comedic physicality, all in all, The 39 Steps is a splendidly dashing evening’s entertainment.
Runs until 25th June 2016