Reviewed at Edinburgh, King’s Theatre
Guest reviewer: Hugh Simpson
Extremely silly, and completely aware of its silliness, The 39 Steps is very funny indeed.
Bearing only a passing resemblance to John Buchan’s novel, Patrick Barlow’s adaptation instead draws heavily on Alfred Hitchcock’s 1935 film. This shares with the original the central figure of terribly decent, solid chap Richard Hannay and the dastardly plots he is unwittingly caught up in, even if the nature of these plots changes greatly.
There are references to many other films by the Master of Suspense throughout the consistently funny script. Some of these are glaring, like the heavily stressed reference to Vertigo, some are more carefully hidden, like the obligatory Hitchcock cameo, while others are so subtle they are easily missed. There are also nods to such other icons of 20th Century culture as Dick Barton and King Kong, but while these are undoubtedly fun, ignorance of them will not spoil anyone’s enjoyment.
There is the feeling of old-fashioned fringe theatre to the production, which is now touring after nine years in London. The set is an apparently bare stage, with an extra proscenium arch behind the real one to represent the London Palladium. There is no attempt to conceal any artifice, with a company of four playing all the parts with extremely quick changes, and frequent (deliberate) mistakes played for laughs.
In a sense, it is the opposite of Barlow’s most famous creation, The National Theatre of Brent, which specialises in similarly short-handed recreations of classics. The NTB are straight-faced, entirely unaware of their ineptitude, and present peculiarly touching versions of stories that are often oddly uplifting. Here, there is very little emotional content and every missed cue or ludicrous staging is celebrated.
The vast majority of the 100-plus characters are taken on by Andrew Hodges and Rob Witcomb, whose indefatigability, versatility and comic timing are a joy to behold.
The three female roles not gleefully essayed by Witcomb fall to Olivia Greene, who discharges them with panache and grace. Richard Ede, meanwhile, has only one part – the cigar-chomping, stiff-upper-lip Hannay with his ‘rather attractive pencil moustache’. Ede’s performance is always funny, often dangerously broad but it stays on the right side of hammy.
Maria Aitken’s direction (here refreshed by tour director James Farrell) is consistently clever and keeps the pace up beautifully. At half-time it seems unlikely that the level of invention can be kept up, but there is no real let-up. The use of props is particularly good, and Peter McKintosh’s direction helps immensely.
As befits a story set in a past that never happened and was rather ridiculous even before this spoof, it all seems a little insubstantial. But its heart is definitely in the right place and it is consistently – and hugely – funny.
Running time: 1 hour 50 minutes (including one interval)
King’s Theatre, 2 Leven Street EH3 9LQ
Tuesday 19 – Saturday 23 April 2016
Daily: 7.30pm; Matinees Wed 20 and Sat 23: 2.30pm.
Details and tickets from: http://www.edtheatres.com/39steps