Chris Eldon Lee reviews ‘The 39 Steps’, which is at Birmingham Repertory Theatre until Saturday March 5th
This show has been on the go for a good decade now and its reputation for delivering a fun-filled night of high quality pastiche, clever sight gags and daring do’s goes way before it. And it’s thoroughly deserved; because this pocket version of ‘The 39 Steps’ is all those thing. But what surprised me is the sincerity, respect and faithfulness with which the story is told. The emotions may be exaggerated and stylised, but there is not a whiff of distortion. The integrity is intact.
It is, however, barely John Buchan’s story. His 1915 novel was considered too dry by the great filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock and he ‘enhanced’ considerably, to say they least. So this is a comedy clone of the famous 1935 film…and is set just before World War Two – rather than World War One. Fans of Robert Powell’s 1978 movie can rest assured that his acrobatics on the clock face of Big Ben remain sacrosanct.
It all started in a village hall in Yorkshire when North Country Theatre attempted to tell the expansive, character-filled epic with a cast of four. Four actors doing ‘The 39 Steps’? Hogwarts aficionados will spot that’s 9 and three quarters steps each. Patrick Barlow of the comic National Theatre of Brent spotted the potential and adapted it again for London. And the express has been running ever since.
For this touring production the understudy Olivia Greene is happily promoted and is joined by the suave, moustachioed, matinee-idol Richard Ede as Richard Hanney – and the hugely versatile Andrew Hodges and Rob Witcomb as absolutely everyone else … often simultaneously. The biggest roar of appreciation came in the train sequence when they played passengers, police and paperboys all at once. It was as if Tin Tin’s bowler-hatted Thompson Twins had broken into a Rap; to the rhythm of the rails.
The sight gags may be familiar at times but they are so expertly done they seem fresh again. Three luggage trunks make up the train and a set of decorator’s ladder become the Fourth Bridge. They only have one door…to portray an entire mansion…and two windows to represent Hannay’s London flat and a wee Scottish croft.
Olivia Green most of the time plays starchy Pamela– and the bedroom scene in which she removes her stockings whilst still handcuffed to Hannay’s wandering hand is a magic moment of restrained comedy. But her portrayal of poor, pigtailed, lonely, city woman Margaret – trapped in a remote, loveless marriage on the moors – made this much more than just a jolly romp.
Hannay is apparently shot dead at half time. But the puritanical crofter’s hymnbook in his breast pocket traps the bullet…leading to the absolute best joke of the evening, “Some of those hymns are hard to get through.”
Just when you think you’ve seen it all, we return to the London Palladium for the dénouement. Sadly, Mr Memory does not have a hymnbook. But with all the actors already on stage…how on earth do they do the dastardly deed?
That, my friends, you will have to witness yourselves.