The 39 Steps

John Buchan and Alfred Hitchcock, adapted by Patrick Barlow from an original concept by Simon Corble and Nobby Dimon
Theatre by the Lake
Theatre by the Lake

Richard Earl, Patrick Bridgman, Jonny McPherson & Frances Marshall
Patrick Bridgman, Jonny McPherson, Richard Earl
Jonny McPherson, Frances Marshall

After several years in the West End and on tour, this cross between a spoof and a homage to John Buchan's influential early spy novel and the Hitchcock films derived from it is now starting to appear in homegrown productions at regional theatres, including this summer season production at Theatre by the Lake.

Sticking close to the original plot but with many comic twists, Richard Hannay is a bored, upper class bachelor living in London. He goes to the theatre, where a woman with a foreign accent asks to go home with him—but the next morning she is found dead and the police suspect Hannay.

So begins a now-typical spy chase thriller, with Hannay pursuing the woman's quest to prevent essential British secrets from falling into enemy hands, while Hannay, now on the front page of every newspaper as a dangerous murderer, tries to evade capture by the police.

The production has an interesting frame. It begins in a half-decorated flat where the decorators and owner are waiting for something to arrive, when the radio announces that Alfred Hitchcock's The 39 Steps is about to start. The four people on stage take over the telling of the story, utilising any objects lying around to create the locations they need.

Abigail Anderson's production for Theatre by the Lake is stuffed with comic business, and therein lies its main issue. It is a comedy thriller, and both comedies and thrillers benefit greatly from carefully controlled pace. When the action keeps stopping for some visual gags and scene changes are extended to include comic business, there is no chance for the tension or the comic pace to build up.

Some of the comic ideas don't work or just get in the way, but others work well, and some are ingenious—the building of the Forth Bridge using trestle tables is brilliant. And the performances are great, with Jonny McPherson a perfect Hannay supported by Patrick Bridgman, Richard Earl and Frances Marshall, all on top form.

There are plenty of funny moments, although I found myself smiling a lot more than I was laughing out loud. While the production has filled the theatre on a Tuesday night in October, out of holiday season, and there were plenty of people laughing around me, after seeing what Theatre by the Lake is capable of with its brilliant A Chorus of Disapproval a few years ago and the best production I've ever seen of Noises Off, this was a bit of a disappointment.

Reviewer: David Chadderton

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