The 39 Steps (touring) ★★★★

Four actors play 130 characters in an inventive 100-minute adaptation of Alfred Hitchcock’s spy thriller The 39 Steps

Alfred Hitchcock arguably remains Britain’s most famous film director. In a career making over 50 films, he earned himself the moniker “the master of suspense”. While movies such as Psycho (1960), Vertigo (1958) and Rear Window (1954) are bona fide classics of the cinema in their own right, Hitchcock developed and excelled certain movie tropes. Throughout his career, we see Hitch exploring an innocent man wrongly accused of a crime in film after film. While North by Northwest (1959), Saboteur (1942) and The Wrong Man (1956) all utilise this theme, it is with 1935’s The 39 Steps that sees the British director toying most playfully with this trope. Remarkably, the film manages to offer a web of intrigue while imbuing it with farce, slapstick and wickedly mischievous humour. 

It is such a blend that adapter Patrick Barlow takes as the starting point of his 2005 stage adaptation – and ramps it up to a wild degree. Set in London 1935, it sees Richard Hannay, our hapless upper-crust hero, in his Portland Place flat, bored at the pointlessness of his life. No chance of being eaten by crocodiles in the Limpopo for him. Taking himself for a routine night at the theatre, he finds himself accidentally embroiled in international intrigue when a mystery German femme fatale fires a gun causing chaos in the theatre. Persuading Hannay to take her back to his flat, she reveals herself to be Annabella Schmidt and that she created the diversion to avoid assassins who were after her. Claiming to have uncovered a nefarious plot to take vital British military secrets out of the country, she warns of a criminal mastermind behind the plot who can be recognised by the missing top joint of his pinkie finger. Referencing but not explaining the phrase “The 39 Steps”, the glamorous blonde is found murdered by morning with the blame falling on Hannay. Relying on the dead woman’s map of the Scottish Highlands, he goes on the run from the police, heading to the circled location of Alt-na-Shellach to clear his name…

All images by Mark Senior

What this adaptation does so well is that it takes a sprawling, cinematic thriller and deploys whatever theatrical conceit it can find to put the adventure on the stage – with just four performers and whatever set is lying around. The production’s endless inventiveness delights you again and again, mirroring the film’s locations, as Hannay flees across the moors of Loch Crimond or mounts a daring escape on the Forth Bridge.

I confess I have a strong suspicion, in fact there isn’t a shadow of a doubt that all the references and Easter Eggs scattered throughout The 39 Steps will send Hitchcock fans and aficionadoes into a frenzy. From dropping movie titles into conversation, to restaging certain iconic film moments, Patrick Barlow’s script would have put a large grin of approval on the Leytonstone director’s face. While playing around with the film’s fun side, it’s not afraid to purloin certain moments wholesale to keep the thrills coming. A favourite was when Hannay’s cleaner discovers the femme fatale’s body, her scream merging into the howl of a train whistle is a delightful homage to the ingenuity of the original. 

Tom Byrne, the only performer to play a single role, imbues Hannay with an immense likeability. Byrne delivers dashing on every front whether it’s heroic good looks or rushing around in and out of scenes trying to make sense of the vortex of spy machinations. He rises to whatever feats of derring-do required of him. 

Described unassumingly in the programme as Clown 1 and Clown 2, Eugene McCoy and Maddie Rice deserve every plaudit for their tireless efforts playing almost of the (alleged) 130 characters. Such is their dexterity and range, they surround our hero with a blizzard of supporting cast. Whether it’s two raincoated spies complete with their own street lamp or a show compère and Mr Memory at the London Palladium, their character sketches are instant and often hilarious. 

The fourth member of the troupe Safeena Ladha plays the three main female characters: Annabella, the German femme fatale, Margaret, the Scottish crofter’s wife and most importantly Pamela, the story’s reluctant love interest. In the film,  Madeleine Carroll was arguably the first “Hitchcock blonde”. Beautiful, classy and icily unavailable, Pamela’s instant dislike of Hannay slowly thawing over the course of their forced joint adventure added an irresistible love story into the mix of the 1935 film. The onscreen chemistry between Madeleine Carroll and her Hannay, Robert Donat, sizzled in its unpredictability. Here, the lack of magnetism of the leads is this production’s weak spot. Whether directed so, Ladha’s Pamela never quite captures the cartoonish characterisation needed. Neither embracing the screwball physicality of the situation nor offering a hauteur against which the comedy could be played against, the lack of spark leaves The 39 Steps as a delightfully old-fashioned, silly spy romp, albeit one without the emotional heart to make it mean something. 

I spy a fun night out –  ★★★★ 4 stars

The 39 Steps Tour

The 39 Steps continues on tour around the UK

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