Chris Eldon Lee reviews ‘The 39 Steps’, which is at Theatr Clwyd until Saturday 22nd September.
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 super-clichés at the expense of his fellow Scotsmen. Take a tip from me. If you are Scottish, don’t wear a kilt to Theatr Clwyd this week. 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 1914. 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”. (If your memories are in colour, then you saw the Robert Powell remake.)
And what Scarborough’s Stephen Joseph Company has done is put that Hitchcock film on stage – with every expense spared. It’s the econony of the production that makes it so utterly hilarious.
The story has 250 characters. They have a cast of four – one of whom portrays Richard Hannay throughout. Consequently, they soon run out of actors; requiring a dead body to suddenly spring up, be somebody else on the other side of the stage, and lie down dead again – all in full view. It’s that kind of mayhem. You just don’t know what ridiculous gag they are going to pull next.
It’s all done close-up, in the round, of course, Scarborough style, and begins with the curtain call. This is so the cast can gesture to the technical box and then blame the occupants for every theatrical indignity that follows.
Mind you, everybody pulls out every stop…to make the whole show work so wizardly.
Poor Hannay is bored with life at his pad in Portland Place until a mysterious woman arrives in his life and dies with a socking great dagger in her back. The chase is on. Trunks, doors, smoke machines and an extensive library of Argo Transacord sound effect records combine to create a train at speed – diving into dark tunnels and hurtling over viaducts. The Fourth Rail bridge is a pair of painter’s ladders. Jacket tails flap in the wind.
On another occasion, a WW1 bi-plane machine guns Hannay into a merry dance and then – in a direct pinch from the battle scene re-enactments in Scarborough’s Peasholm Park – dives at him in model form from a taunt wire.
Add to that a hat-swapping routine Tommy Cooper would be proud of, some of the quickest costume changes on the British stage, a plethora of silly Scottish dancing and the thickest ham and tomato sandwiches in captivity – and the chaos is complete.
The cast plays with the audience, mercilessly, at very close quarters. Front row faces are rudely framed in a baronial picture gallery. One character practically went to sleep with his head in my wife’s lap.
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. And so will you.
The actors Sam Jenkins-Shaw, Ameilia Donkor, Laura Kirman and Niall Ransome were drenched in sweat by the end – and I was wetting myself too.