Any competent writer with a satirical bent can probably turn out a good take-off of a classic work, be it epic poetry, high drama or a genre novel. It takes a very special aptitude to do it with affection. The Patrick Barlow adaptation of John Buchan’s The 39 Steps has been re-directed by Maria Aitken for the second decade of the 21st century and, like its predecessor productions, is fit to garner any awards going. Those should include one for the sound effects and choice of Korngold-esque music by Mic Pool.
The cast of four play out Richard Hannay’s adventures on a bare stage equipped only by the most mobile of multi-purpose furniture and props. There is also a false proscenium adorned by a pair of stage boxes and a bewildering sequence of costume quick-changes for three of the performers, all courtesy of designer Peter McKintosh. As appropriate, smoke blows, snow falls, moorland winds howl guns are fired and knives mysteriously appear in the backs of characters unfortunate enough to stand between our hero and the dastardly villains out to nobble him.
All this is played with whirlwind efficiency by Dugald Bruce-Lockhart as the square-jawed Hannay, Katherine Kinglsey as the principal women he trips over in the course of his harried wanderings and the remarkable double act of beanpole Richard Braine and dumpling Dan Starkey as literally everyone else. From music-hall artistes through policemen and salesmen travelling in ladies’ undergarments to assorted married couples they pick up the ball which is consummate stage-craft and timing and play with it to our exhausted delight.
Bruce-Lockhart plays Hannay straight while obviously revelling in the mimed close-shaves, foiled-escapes and tentative entanglements with the opposite sex. For many people today Buchan is a name from literary and political history; the story is best known through its filmed versions, including the initial Hitchcock one of 1935. There a nod to this in the character of Pamela; Kingsley has Madeleine Carroll’s blonde curls and halo hat as well as a nice line in gentle invective and makes the most of the sequences when she and Hannay are hand-cuffed together.