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Theatre review: The 39 Steps/ Liverpool Playhouse

Philip Key finds a splendid wheeze with not a whiff of Christmas

Published on December 9th 2009.


Theatre review: The 39 Steps/ Liverpool Playhouse

IN the final scene a Christmas tree is dragged on stage and snow falls in the auditorium. But that’s about the only nod towards the festive season in The 39 Steps which might make it seem an odd choice for a Christmas show.

One advantage of this comic approach to staging is that the story fairly gallops along with never a dull moment

After all, John Buchan’s novel was a somewhat turgid spy thriller set mainly in the Scottish Highlands.

But despite the billing as “John Buchan’s The 39 Steps”, the show is really Alfred Hitchcock’s 39 Steps and that was a totally different kettle of fish.

His 1935 film changed the plot, injected a lot of comedy, upped the pace and became one of the great successes of Hitch’s early career.

This stage adaptation by Patrick Barlow follows the Hitchcock story pretty slavishly, right down to the main title theme by Louis Levy.

The new gimmick is to tell the tale with a cast of just four and limited props, and it works wonderfully well. Well enough for the show to arrive with two Tony Awards and a Best New Comedy gong in the Olivier Awards.

Mind you, it seems perverse not to credit Charles Bennett who did the original film adaptation and Ian Hay who provided the film’s dialogue, much of which is lifted wholesale for this “new” comedy.

Presumably Barlow’s contribution “from an original concept by Simon Corble and Nobby Dimon” was to work out how put the thing on stage, featuring as it does an escape from a train, a police chase across the Scottish Highlands and a finale at the London Palladium.

Well, that’s all there, created with much ingenuity and hard work by the cast who rarely leave the stage.

So how’s it done? Some of it is old-fashioned stage trickery, like using chairs to create a car ride and then bobbing up and down when the car “moves”, and some of it a little more unexpected like the chase across the Highlands, played out on a back-lit curtain in silhouette using cut-outs on sticks.

When the hero Richard Hannay looks out of an upper floor window to observe two suspicious men under a lamppost, the men in question come on from the wings carrying the lamppost before standing under it.

Much of the comedy derives from the theatrical devices not always going to plan – when Hannay takes a second look out of the window the men (with lamppost) have to come running back on.

One advantage of this comic approach to staging is that the story fairly gallops along with never a dull moment. In a play with so many scenes, that is a decided benefit. There are no awkward scene changes and those that are required are done right in front of us.

Of course, this puts a huge strain on the cast but happily they are up to it.

Richard Hannay, the innocent man caught up in the spy shenanigans, is given a grand, stiff-upper lip (with pencil moustache) performance by the gloriously-named Dugald Bruce-Lockhart. With a cut-glass accent and pipe (which he thankfully never lights), Bruce-Lockhart is the epitome of British pluck, leaping through windows, hanging from the Forth Bridge (actually a ladder) and at one stage bravely and literally descending by rope from a theatre box on to the stage.

At least he can stay with one character while the rest of the cast have to tackle numerous roles, no more so than tall Richard Braine and the diminutive Dan Starkey.

Starkey also gets to dress in drag, playing everything from an hotelier’s wife to the wife of the evil Professor (Braine plays the hotelier and Professor). Along the way the pair tackle travelling salesmen, station porters, policemen, crooks, a milkman, a stage variety act Mr Memory, detectives and politicians – among others.

The producers certainly get their money’s worth from this pair, particularly when they play four characters at the same time (it can be done but only just).

Katherine Kingsley also gamely takes on a variety of roles, from a foreign spy and farmer’s timid wife to Hannay’s love interest, Pamela. As with the Hitchcock film, the scene in which she removes her stockings while handcuffed to Hannay is a classic.

Hitchcock fans may, incidentally, notice references to other films including Vertigo and Psycho, complete with original soundtracks.

Directed in Liverpool by Hanna Berrigan (Maria Aitken and Fiona Buffini were earlier directors), The 39 Steps is happy entertainment with plenty of genuine laughs.

One sometimes wishes it would go further along the silly route than it does but, chained to the Charles Bennett film adaptation as it is, it occasionally appears confined.

That said, there is enough silliness in the show to please most people and it is, in the end, a jolly piece of theatre that, yes, does suit the Christmas season.

If it also tempts audiences to catch the original film, so much the better.

8/10 Jolly good fun.

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6 comments so far, continue the conversation, write a comment.

Liverpool shagDecember 9th 2009.

Oh you are all on form today!

Mr. MemoryDecember 9th 2009.

I remember reading The Thirty-Nine Steps as a lad in school and it was a cracking tale! This was in the 1970s though. I suppose Mr. Key requires stories to have lots of brightly-coloured pictures and "interactive" features.

Sandy ArbuthnotDecember 9th 2009.

"With a cut-glass accent and pipe (which he thankfully never lights)" WHAT! Is this 'Philip Key' an agent of a sinister foreign power? There's no finer sight ot smell than an Englishmen with a hot bowl of rough shag!

Captain TriggersDecember 9th 2009.

I say!

Richard HannayDecember 9th 2009.

"Somewhat turgid spy thriller"! Nonsense! 'The Thirty-Nine Steps' was a ripping yarn! A compelling action-adventure for stout British lads with a healthy suspicion of foreigners!

BookerManDecember 9th 2009.

I saw it last night and thought it was fantastic. Did anyone else notice the references to other Hitchcock thrillers, N by NW, The Birds and the tiny silhouette of Hitchcock himself. I got half soaked by the 'Snow suds' as I was on the front row, brilliant !It's worth going just to see Ms Schmidt !

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