The 39 Steps

John Buchan, adapted by Patrick Barlow
Fiery Angel
Sheffield Lyceum

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Safeena Ladha in The 39 Steps Credit: Mark Senior
Tom Byrne in The 39 Steps Credit: Mark Senior
Tom Byrne, Safeena Ladha, Eugene McCoy, Maddie Rose in The 39 Steps Credit: Mark Senior

John Buchan's novel has undergone significant adaptations since its publication in 1915. Hitchcock revolutionised the story in the 1930s, creating a much lauded film version which is regarded as a 'classic thriller'.

The version currently on tour at the Sheffield Lyceum is a delightful, skilful comedy in a style espoused by playwright Patrick Barlow in which a story with a large cast is performed by four actors. Other narratives using the same technique include a four-man Ben Hur and plays on epic subjects like the French Revolution, Lawrence of Arabia, King Arthur and more.

The novel provides a framework in which reluctant hero Richard Hannay, wrongly accused of murdering an exotic German spy, follows a dangerous trail to Scotland where he identifies Professor Jordan as the treacherous spy leader, falls in love with the beautiful Pamela then hotfoots it back to London pursued by police and anonymous villains.

While the plot holds the action together, and as Barlow rightly observes, "the faster and tighter (the actors) play it, the more the story will work", what is really exciting and endlessly amusing is the comedy style which debunks stage conventions at every turn and asserts what Barlow calls "the ridiculousness of theatre."

An example of this is the scene in which all four actors decide, "we must go to London immediately," looking sadly at four chairs spread around the set. With hardly a pause for breath, they arrange the chairs to make a car and off they go.

Stage effects are also important in debunking conventions. When the Flying Scotsman sets off for Scotland, it is accompanied by an outburst of dry ice and station names that are dragged unconvincingly from one side of the stage to another. An ongoing joke is how windy it is in Scotland, which is represented by the actors flapping their clothes or, in one case, a pigtail.

What is so impressive about the performance is how everybody is so clear about the theatrical convention they are employing. Credit is given to Maria Aitkin as director and to Nicola Samer as tour director. Each must have made an important contribution to the comic sequences in the play as no doubt the actors have in developing their various characters.

The four exceptionally talented actors are Tom Byrne who plays Richard Hannay, Safeena Ladha who plays Pamela, Annabella and Margaret and is 'no stranger to multi-rolling'. All the remaining characters are played by Eugene McCoy (Clown 1) and Maddie Rice (Clown 2), regardless of gender.

McCoy has all the characteristics of a mime artist, almost balletic in the use of hands and arms and remarkably over-expressive and very funny in the drag roles.

Rice seems to leap from one male role to another, including the dastardly Professor Jordan. At one point, she successfully wears half of two costumes and plays two male characters simultaneously. Very impressive.

This highly entertaining comedy is regarded by Barlow as an important antidote to troubled times. "I think people want to trust in decency and moral backbone again. Hannay and Pamela fill us with renewed hope as they are good, decent and moral people. Those are qualities aren't often evident at the moment."

Reviewer: Velda Harris

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