The 39 Steps
Patrick Barlow, from the novel by John Buchan
Fiery Angel Ltd and Tricycle London Productions Ltd in association with West Yorkshire Playhouse
Opera House, Manchester
Made famous by Alfred Hitchcock's various attempts at it on film—North By Northwest is considered by many as his final attempt at the same story—and by Robert Powell hanging from the clock face in front of Big Ben in 1978, National Theatre of Brent actor and writer Patrick Barlow brings the original spy chase story to the stage.
Barlow seems to have based his script on the Hitchcock version, as, amongst other things, the meaning of the title is Hitchcock's and not Buchan's and nothing to do with Big Ben. He has also thrown in plenty of "Coarse Acting" gags that have fun with the idea of actors playing multiple roles and things that supposedly go wrong. Maria Aitken's slick and pacy direction wrings as much comedy as possible out of the script, aided by the great Toby Sedgwick as movement director.
The production pokes fun at some of the upper class attitudes of the first decade of the last century and at the spy thriller tropes that are now familiar to us, but it still puts across the story quite clearly. However there are no edge-of-the-seat Hitchcockian thriller moments—the comedy quite definitely dominates. It even borrows from the standard romantic comedy plot of a love interest who initially hates him but is unable to get away from him—in this case because they are handcuffed together while on the run from the police across the Scottish countryside.
With a cast of just four, the production depends on slick execution and great comedy performers, both of which it possesses on the current tour. Richard Ede just plays the smooth Richard Hannay, whereas Charlotte Peters plays German spy Annabella Schmidt, love interest Pamela and frustrated Scottish farmer's wife Margaret and Gary Mackay and Tony Bell, both billed simply as "man", play every other character, male and female.
All executed on Peter McKintosh's convincing set of a fake Edwardian variety stage within the real stage, the actors switch characters by changing costume, changing hat or just by turning round in a very impressive and hilarious manner that leaves you in no doubt which character they are playing.
With minimal scenery and some very well-chosen sound effects from sound designer Mic Pool, these four actors conjure up very clear impressions of places and situations, such as escaping through the window of a moving train and running across the roof or jumping off the Forth Bridge. The way they show it is windy would sound like nothing if described but is superbly effective in practice.
It's slick, fast and funny and you're out of the theatre within two hours of curtain up. The perfect comedy.
Reviewer: David Chadderton