The programme cover suggests that the full title is John Buchan’s The 39 Steps. I would take issue with that. The award-winning comedy is not a spoof of Buchan’s novel, but an affectionately irreverent homage to Alfred Hitchcock’s film. Patrick Barlow’s adaptation of the story, amazingly, is currently playing in 26 countries and this week York is the venue for its latest national tour which started in January.
The original idea for this version of The 39 Steps began in a tour of village halls in Yorkshire and the Barlow adaptation first gained national attention some seven years ago on the open stage of West Yorkshire Playhouse. This time it took me longer to warm to the quirks of the script and production: the quasi-improvisational style seems less suited to a proscenium arch setting. Despite that, Peter McKintosh’s set, with its footlights and stage boxes, makes witty use of the traditional theatre concept – and the cleverness, sense of fun and eye for detail in Barlow’s script and Maria Aitken’s direction (re-worked by Lucy Skilbeck for the tour) win through.
There are two stories at work in The 39 Steps. One is of Richard Hannay, a heroically self-effacing fellow of the type this country used regularly to produce in the days of Empire, who finds a female secret agent murdered in his flat and sets off on an adventurous journey to Scotland to clear his name and save his country from disaster. The other is of four actors displaying a different brand of heroism as they strain every sinew and every low-tech resource imaginable to reproduce the great Hitchcock movie of 1935.
The 39 Steps offers an evening of inspired silliness and harmless fun to anyone; to those familiar with Hitchcock’s oeuvre there are additional delights: the comically doomed attempts to reproduce key moments in the film (the cross-cut from scream to speeding locomotive, the escape on to the Forth Bridge, and so on) and the neatly imbedded nuggets from elsewhere – don’t miss Hitch’s cameo appearance and see how many of his film titles you can pick up in the script.
Richard Ede is a fine upstanding Richard Hannay, imperturbably decent, athletically flinging himself through windows or swinging down from a stage box. Charlotte Peters convincingly and charmingly re-creates Madeleine Carroll as Pamela and nobly takes on characters of assorted nationalities, though she is occasionally somewhat over-emphatic. Tony Bell and Gary Mackay act expertly on two levels: they are simultaneously a host of passengers, police, professors, political dignitaries, spies, sheriffs, hoteliers and their wives, and the two hard-working chaps who carry around their own props (even a lamp-post), switch costume and character by simply turning round and can maintain a four-sided conversation between the two of them.
After York Theatre Royal (to 30 March), The 39 Steps plays the Lyceum Theatre, Sheffield (2 – 6 April). Later tour dates include the Theatre Royal, Newcastle (7 – 11 May).