The West Yorkshire Playhouse has recently taken two very different approaches to adapting well-known novels, with The Thirty Nine Steps treated with a great deal less reverence than David Copperfield. How you respond to Patrick Barlow’s take on John Buchan depends on where you start from. I thoroughly enjoyed the solemn foolery, but what will be the reaction of the John Buchan fan anticipating a dramatisation of a favourite book?
Not too much of the novel survives, but then not too much survived in the Hitchcock film, which is the true inspiration for Barlow – and, presumably, for Simon Corble and Nobby Dimon who created the prototype of this version. WYP may be storing up problems with the literal-minded by the billing “John Buchan’s The 39 Steps” – “Alfred Hitchcock’s” would have been more appropriate.
The mock-heroic introduction dates the action to 1935, the year of the film, and promises incredible feats of acting over the next 89 minutes (I haven’t checked a film guide, but I think I can guess the length of the movie The 39 Steps). The basic premise is that four actors, with ingenious but low-tech props, are doing their very best to act out the Hitchcock film. Barlow - of course, well versed in the ways of the National Theatre of Brent - sees four actors as a cast of thousands. There are little in-jokes like a passing homage to Hitchcock’s North by North West, or a Mr Memory who gets the answers wrong (the questioners don’t notice), but generally the fun depends on such things as windows that are just too small for our hero to escape through or spies who have to carry their own lamp-post to lurk under.
If this seems disrespectful to the spirit of Buchan, it’s worth remembering that no 39 Steps film managed a coherent piece of story-telling and that the success of Hitchcock’s was partly due to its comedy element: the smart Thirties badinage between the hand-cuffed couple is among the slower elements of this current version.
Robert Whitelock brings due earnestness to the part of Richard Hannay without escaping the shadow of Robert Donat, and Lisa Jackson assumes various nationalities before turning elegantly into Madeleine Carroll. But the real stars are Mark Hadfield and Simon Gregor, changing character at the drop of a hat (literally) and achieving such memorable double acts as the Compere and Mr Memory and Mr and Mrs MacIntosh, hoteliers extraordinaire.
Fiona Buffini’s admirably unfussy direction sets a rare pace, and Peter McKintosh’s design neatly merges improvisation (bare walls) with aspiring theatricality (false proscenium, footlights, etc), though his Forth Bridge is decidedly less impressive than the real thing.
- Ron Simpson (reviewed at West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds)