Chris Eldon Lee reviews ‘The 39 Steps’, which is at The New Vic in Newcastle-under-Lyme until Saturday 30th March.
Once he’d got over the shock – I expect even the dour John Buchan would be rolling in the isles at Patrick Barlow’s 21st century adaptation of his famous story ‘The 39 Steps’. Or possibly writing to his solicitor.
No, I’m sure he’d see the funny side of it…and forgive the unremitting jokes at the expense of his fellow Scotsmen. Take a tip from me. If you are Scottish, don’t wear a kilt to the New Vic this month. But do keep a hankie in your sporran. You will need it for the tears of laughter.
There are those who reckon this is the first spy story ever written; penned by Buchan whilst bedbound in Broadstairs in the First World War. It was his greatest story…and, twenty years later, became one of Hitchcock’s finest films. Almost all of us must have vivid memories of it – as Robert Donat leaps from a train and stalks the Northern Moors perused by secret agents who will “stop at nothing” to get their hands on Air Ministry information. (If your memories are in colour, then you saw the Robert Powell remake.)
What Theresa Heskins’ New Vic company has done is put that story on stage – with every expense spared. It’s the invention of the production that makes it so utterly hilarious.
The story has at least 120 characters. They have a cast of four – one of whom, the dashing, debonair and pencil-mustachiod Isaac Stanmore portrays Richard Hannay throughout. I admired the cut of his upper-class jib and his endless stamina…as he danced the Charleston in the three-piece suit and heavy coat.
The ruby-lipped Rebecca Brewer appears first as the mysterious Miss Schmidt, with an outrageously posh German accent; then as Margaret, the beautiful Scottish damsel, inexplicably married to a wizened old shepherd; and finally as poor Pamela, destined to be handcuffed to a suspected murderer and dragged backwards through bush and bog.
That leaves Michael Hugo and Gareth Cassidy to play everybody else – often simultaneously. Hats spin thorough the air and overcoats assume a life of their own as the two actors bagatelle from one comedy character to the next. Together they play two secret agents, two fake policemen, two ladies underwear salesmen, two extremely decrepit Scottish political party members and the kindly Highland B&B proprietors who take pity on then handcuffed couple.
Just to show off, there are at least two occasions when they play four personalities on stage at the very same time…swapping coats and hats in tandem. It is consummate clowning of the highest order. You just don’t know what ridiculous gag they are going to pull off next.
We first meet Hannay in his Portland Place pad where he is bored with life, until a mysterious foreign woman arrives and shortly suffers from a socking great dagger in her back. Suddenly, the chase is on. Exhausting gymnastical theatre and an extensive library of Argo Transacord sound effect records combine to create a train at speed, hurtling over The Fourth Railway bridge. Jackets flap in the wind as the three men take to the roof … and Hannay’s famous plunge into the Firth is done horizontally, to startling effect.
The whole cast plays with the audience, mercilessly, at very close quarters. Front row members are recruited to look after props; a table lamp, a period telephone, a frying pan with a haddock in it – which later ludicrously doubles as a motor car windscreen wiper. (Don’t ask me why. It probably happened in rehearsal.)
Alex Day’s comedy sound is fantastic. Interlaced with James Atherton’s original 1930s dance band tunes are scores of split-second spot effects. This is theatre in the round…so there are no doors. But the cast are given one door knob between them to open an endless variety of doors; each of which creaks and closes with its own unique squeak and clunk.
Mr Day has even come up with a most convincing sound effect for the aforementioned haddock being tossed gaily in its hot pan.
Michael Hugo’s most chilling cameo is the dastardly Colonel Jordan…the Scottish Laird with Nazi sympathies and a missing finger top. His cool portrayal of a master-race maniac is a slice of sinister tranquillity; till the music strikes up and he can’t stop one of his legs breaking out into the Black Bottom.
Moments later he and Cassidy are fighter pilots trying to machine gun the fleeing Hannay. They don’t actually have planes of course. That would be far too obvious. They just sit on the steps in the stalls and hand the tail end of their silk scarves to audience members …. who dutifully flap them to suggest speed.
Frankly, if you think this review is chaotic, you should see the show.
Yet, despite the audacious liberties taken with the tale, it is told earnestly and honestly. Buchan’s pleas for a just and good world are honoured to the hilt. His integrity shines through the spoof and satire. Which is why I think even he would enjoy the travesty of it all.
The actors were drenched in sweat by the end – and I was wetting myself too.
Photo : Andrew Billington