DramaSouth Coast

The 39 Steps – Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford

Writer: John Buchan
Adaptor: Patrick Barlow
Director: Maria Aitken

Reviewer: Ann Bawtree

Advertised as Alfred Hitchcock’s classic thriller, The 39 Steps, what is on the stage of the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre would be more accurately described as a derivation from John Buchan’s novel of the same name. A “shocker” as he himself described it. This first appeared in serial form in 1915, the year after the setting for the story and soon became a best seller.

Adaptations have been many. Possibly the best known is Alfred Hitchcock’s still acclaimed 1935 film starring Robert Donat as the hero, Richard Hannay. Kenneth More played the role in the 1959 film. Robert Powell followed in 1978. There have also been several radio plays, with heroes ranging from Orson Wells through Glenn Ford to David Rintoul.

Following these illustrious forebears, Richard Ede makes a handsome and dashing Hannay with Olivia Greene as an elegant heroine. But the greatest accolades go to the only two other members of the cast, Andrew Hodges and Rob Witcomb. In quick, sometimes instantaneous, succession they play a music-hall compere and performer, pairs of policemen, uniformed and plain clothes, a peasant farmer, a hotel keeper and his wife, anonymous train passengers, bagpipers and the organisers of a political rally, not to mention one of the wickedest villains of all time.

The set is a vast brick-walled space accommodating various utilitarian objects, step ladders, ropes, fire buckets. Our hero, seated in a set within a set, tells us that the date is 1935. The story begins with his visit to The London Palladium where events involve him in an international spy plot.

In writing the original story the author made no allowance for its future theatrical performance. Therefore, if a door has to be entered, he who enters it must bring it with him. If a train flies by stations, it is their place names that must do the flying. A charming train does indeed race across the stage, steaming away to the strains of Vivian Ellis’ famous Coronation Scot. All this action needs, and gets, meticulous attention to detail from the sound and lighting departments.

It is easy to poke fun at this ultra-heroic genre and the story is very well-known, not to say, hackneyed. So it was very satisfying to hear the gasp of astonishment from the uninitiated when the identity of the dastardly spy master is revealed.

Runs until 28 May2016 | Image:Dan Tsantilis


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