It has been 10 years since the Patrick Barlow-reworked production of The 39 Steps premiered in Leeds and I’m glad I finally caught it on this tour. The show is a comedic reworking of John Buchan’s novel of the same name; a tale of fabulous ‘derring do’ made perhaps most famous by the Alfred Hitchcock film adaptation in 1935, although I don’t believe this or any of the two further film adaptations were made for laughs; yet it is quite easy to see how this theatrical incarnation started as a parody of the ripping yarns of the same age, simply by taking some of the scenes to often absurd extremes.
The whole thing is carried along by four impressive actors – Richard Ede as the attractive-pencil-moustached-hero Richard Hannay, Olivia Green playing a triplet of multi-accented love interests, and the duo of Andrew Hodges and Rob Witcomb faultlessly picking up every other character the show can throw at them – from cops to Scottish hoteliers; lingerie salesman to cabaret acts.
And equally impressive is the staging of the show – despite the confines of a reproduction old theatre, we are transported convincingly from London to the Scottish highlands and back, all thanks to creative set design from Peter McKintosh, coupled with notable Lighting Design (Ian Scott), Sound Design (Mic Pool) and clever movement (Toby Sedgwick) that really does make you believe you are travelling on an old-fashioned steam train – or fleeing across a murky Scottish moor.
If I had to pick a fault with the show, I would note that – by way of a Tuesday night show in the middle of a long run – there was perhaps a little softness to the edge of the play (some of the early accents weren’t quite as clear as needs be) – but this really is a minor gripe that did little to detract from a highly entertaining evening.
The show follows a fine tradition; Terry Jones and Michael Palin’s often forgotten Ripping Yarns TV series springs to mind with a similar set of many-characters-to-one-actor performances in a ‘gosh and golly adventure before tea time’, and I can imagine this production did well to inspire the more recent Jeeves and Wooster in Perfect Nonsense which presented in a similar style.
All in all, the actors were clearly enjoying themselves; with the slickest of technical support; the Hitchcockian references were never over-done (including the cameo); and the whole thing was wrapped up in time for Christmas. Jolly good show! Three-and-a-half out of five.