What ho old chap. The 39 Steps has been a jolly novel, a Hitchcock film and a staged spoof of, well itself really. Patrick Barlow’s adaptation opened at the Tricycle in August 2006, and transferred to the Criterion theatre in September of the same year, where it has been subtly winning awards (including a Laurence Olivier and a Whatsonstage.com Theatrgoers Choice Award) and attracting a steady crowd ever since with its rollicking mix of tongue in cheek humour and ingenious acting.
Part of the boast of this show is that four actors play a whopping 139 roles, and yes, lets face it, it is a gimmick, but a wonderfully loveable and enjoyable one that demands sensational acting abilities from its cast. Fortunate then that new cast members Nigel Betts and Alan Perrin are up to the challenge.
The formidable Jo Stone-Fewings doesn’t really pull his weight in the bargain, taking on just one role, that handsome old English chap turned hero Richard Hannay, ironically plunged into a world of spies and mystery after a rather cosy trip to the theatre. Though Stone-Fewings is excellent in his role, using facial muscles I didn’t know existed to embody the campery of a 1930’s English toff and keeping up the physical pace despite the soaring temperatures and his stifling three piece tweed suit, it does leave an astounding 138 roles for the other three actors.
Josefina Gabrielle, who takes on all the female roles, is equally adept at facial manipulation and over acting, managing, like Stone-Fewings, not to over the egg the decidedly well egged pudding. But Alan Perrin and Nigel Betts, who joined the cast recently, take on the most roles, and are left in the unenviable position of playing several roles at one time, often having dialogues with themselves. They take over from Simon Gregor and Martyn Ellis, who, it must be said, are a difficult act to follow, but they rise to the challenge and bring their own personalities to the production, breathing new life into some roles, if occasionally letting others fall flat. As Ellis and Gregor before them, their little and large statures provide some of the comedy for them, but they do not rest on their laurels, working physically hard throughout the evening.
In an age of nostalgia, The 39 Steps strikes an excellent balance between utter farce and intelligent wit. It is a little creaky at times, and some of the jokes simply fly by before they can be caught, but the pace of the show buoys the audience along with it, and there is a sense of fun that infects audience and cast alike. A humorous and sophisticated comedy with a warm heart.
NOTE: The following FOUR-STAR review dates from 23 January 2007 when the production first transferred to the Criterion.
Rachel Pickup, who has now joined the four-strong cast of Patrick Barlow’s comedy take on John Buchan’s classic spy thriller, fits in perfectly to the mad-cap world in which a dashing London chap finds himself in rather a tight spot after a chance encounter leads to him becoming a murder suspect, forcing him to go on the run to the Scottish highlands and expose a spy ring to clear his name. Crikey!
Based primarily on the celebrated 1935 Hitchcock film version of the novel, Pickup, who took over the role(s) from Catherine McCormack, plays the femme fatale, the timid wife of a Scottish farmer and love interest Pamela with aplomb. She is by turns comic and winsome.
The versatility of the quartet is well demonstrated, with an array of quirky characters – from policemen and inn keepers to theatre performers and spies - portrayed to tell the entire story between them. “Clowns” Rupert Degas and Simon Gregor in particular are masters of the quick change, adopting a range of guises and accents at – literally - the drop of a hat. Meanwhile, Charles Edwards as hero and all-round-good-sport Richard Hannay, is master of the ironic arched-eyebrow.
Under Maria Aitken’s direction, the company never quite trips over into the completely ridiculous, while gently mocking the genre with comic effects reminiscent of Victoria Wood’s spoof soap Acorn Antiques - particularly in one scene in which Hannay declares “I say, that’s the telephone…” and then it rings.
The 39 Steps is good, wholesome fun, and a showcase of ingenuity as every scene from the movie is played out with the help of just a few move-able doors, chairs, windows and boxes. And it’s a jolly good yarn, to boot.
- Caroline Ansdell