Patrick Barlow’s adaptation of the Alfred Hitchcock/ John Buchan mystery, The 39 Steps is rapidly becoming as infamous as its original source materials. The production has now played in over 39 cities across the world, including tremendous runs on Broadway and in London’s West End where it earned the ‘Best Comedy’ award at the 2007 Lawrence Olivier Awards. This leads one to ask what makes this adaptation so successful, and how can it translate to be a similar success is contrasting cultures?
The accomplishment of the piece lies within the harmonious coming together of Maria Aitken’s inventive direction and Patrick Barlow’s unexpectedly hilarious adaptation.
Aitken’s direction is brilliantly aware of the theatrical devices employed in all genres of theatre and presents them in a witty, ironic manner. She takes simple and common aspects of performance from mime, lighting and shadow, to the use of dry ice and presents them to the audience in a way which is both genius in its execution and also mocking at the very same time. The devices themselves poke fun at the very thing they are and the way in which they are used in both traditional and contemporary performance, whilst effortlessly maintaining their desired effect.
In the adaptation, Barlow has also followed suit in taking a genre, the Alfred Hitchcock thriller in this case, and has presented it in an unusual way. Much like the direction of the piece, the adaptation mocks the very genre it falls into thus making it compelling yet brilliantly funny to watch.
The simple way in which both of these vital aspects of the production come together plays a major role in the success of this particular production; however, some accountability must also go to the brilliant use characterization in the piece which is expressed by just four cast members.
With the exception of the male protagonist, the other three members of the ensemble play a multitude of characters at an incredibly fast moving pace. This vast of array of characters not only provides the opportunity for humorous exchanges between multiple characters, but also maintains the high energy and fast pace which inevitably maintains an audiences attention no matter which country, city, or continent they may be watching the production within.
The fast paced nature of the piece can sometimes cause the narrative to stutter or become lost in the chaos on stage, however, this is a small price to pay for the humor the exchanges bring to the proceedings and for the formula which has made this production such an incredible global comedic success.
- Ben Wooldridge