The 39 Steps
Grand Opera House, York
Till March 19
Like The Hound of the Baskervilles, or Pride and Prejudice, The 39 Steps is one of those British classics that seems to get a new dramatised version every few years.
I can confidently say, however, that this version, created by Patrick Barlow, is completely unlike any you’ve seen before!
Anyone who has ever experienced Barlow’s two-man National Theatre of Brent (now a Radio 4 Extra standard) will know exactly what to expect – fast character changes, deliberately mistimed sound effects, outlandish accents, and the deeply satisfying humour that comes from knowing the actors are playing the whole thing absolutely straight.
This show is based on the 1935 Hitchcock film, rather than the 1914 John Buchan book, and Hitchcock references abound in visual gags, throwaway lines, and extracts from musical scores. Look out for the famous silhouette of the man himself….
Spies, suspicions and steps
Barlow’s take on this classic is fast-paced, achingly funny – and performed by only four actors, the majority of the roles being undertaken by just two of them.
Richard Dee plays Richard Hannay, our gallant hero, and possessor of “a really very attractive pencil moustache”. Newly back in London after adventures overseas, he is dragged into a complex plot involving spies, murderous Germans, suspicious policemen, and a mysterious phrase – “The 39 Steps”.
He only learns the true meaning of this phrase after careering halfway around Scotland, hanging by his hands from the Forth Rail Bridge, gatecrashing a political rally, and finding himself handcuffed to a woman who claims to hate him.
Dee has a fine instinct for how far he can push his performance without it descending into sheer pantomime. Like the rest of the cast, he is a very accomplished physical actor, whose escape from beneath a dead body absolutely deserved the enthusiastic round of applause it received.
Olivia Green covers three roles with great panache – the vampish Annabella, the timid farmer’s wife Margaret, and the female lead, Pamela, the woman who finds herself handcuffed to Hannay. If someone had told me that there were three different actors playing these parts, I could easily have believed them. It was not purely a matter of costume and makeup – all three characters moved and spoke entirely differently.
Escaping into laughter
Everyone else – male and female, young and old, animate and inanimate, and sometimes more than one at a time – is tackled with skill and fine comic timing by Andrew Hodges and Rob Witcomb. They completely steal every scene they’re in, often without having to say a word. You’ll see exactly what I mean in the escape scene across the Scottish moors. I have never laughed so much at parts of the landscape!
Director Maria Aitken has clearly worked her cast hard. Their apparently effortless movements are often exaggerated, almost choreographed, and timed to the second. They use mime and slow motion to perfection.
The set is very cleverly designed to work as hard as the cast. The proscenium arch of the Grand Opera House frames a more ornate version, with heavy red curtains, old-fashioned footlights, and a box to either side.
These curtains open to reveal essentially a backstage scene – bare brick walls, a stepladder, a few items of scenery. Some of the loudest laughs of the evening came from the clever manipulation of this scenery, especially the hard-working door in the Professor’s house in Scotland.
Great praise must go also to the lighting and sound operators, whose musical stings and complex lighting changes were never mistimed.
This is not a long show – just under two hours, including the interval. But I can assure you with absolute confidence that you will be dazzled by the sheer inventiveness, skill, and talent involved – and you will laugh until your stomach muscles beg you to stop. Unmissable.