The 39 Steps
Festival Theatre, Malvern, Monday 17th June 2013
Now look here, you chaps: there’s a bally good show doing the rounds at the moment and you could do worse than go and see it. You might be familiar with the original book written by a cove by the name of John Buchan, and you’ll certainly be aware of at least one of the cinematic adaptations, each of which has very little in common with any other. That’s all by the by.
The story begins with all-round good egg Richard Hannay, feeling a bit out of sorts, don’t you know. It is not long however before he finds himself immersed in a world of espionage and intrigue and, not forgetting, murder, when he encounters a German femme fatale. Wanted for her murder, Hannay flees north of the border. The only way he can clear his name, dash it all, is to expose a spy ring and solve the mystery of the thirty-nine steps.
What sets Patrick Barlow’s adaptation apart from (and above) the rest is the manner of its telling. A hard-working cast of four expend a level of energy that approaches Olympiad proportions to populate the story with dozens after dozens of characters. This can involve a lot of on-stage quick changes – Tony Bell and Gary Mackay are adept at this, swapping hats and accents without missing a beat. Mackay also has a nice line in Scottish characters: his landlady is hilarious, and his speaker at a political meeting is astonishing – unheard of, quite literally. Tony Bell gives us his bad guy (among many others) as the evil Professor. This pair also give us policemen, newspaper sellers, henchmen, travelling salesmen, and various features of the Highlands landscape. Charlotte Peters plays the more attractive female roles, including the German fraulein fatale and the romantic interest. Like Mackay and Bell, Peters demonstrates a range of accents and, above all, a talent for physical comedy.
But the show belongs to Richard Ede as our dashing hero. In a three-piece tweed suit, sometimes with an overcoat on top of that, he is a dynamo of energy, chucking himself around the stage to create some of the funniest physical comedy you will ever see. His characterisation is pure charm; he is the affable matinee idol from British films, handsome with his pencil moustache, but above all he is very, very funny. Of course a lot of the humour comes from Barlow’s clever script, which piles on the silliness in an absence of smut or cheap laughs, but it is Ede who is the driving force in bringing the show to life.
The show lays bare its theatricality. Doors and windows are wheeled on and off as required. A chase on the roof of a train is created simply with a couple of packing trunks and some ingenious phyicality. It’s all done for laughs. Form has precedence over content. The pursuit of Hannay is the pursuit of silliness.
But the content also bears looking at. This oft-adapted tale of adventure is obviously an influence on James Bond, but on a more general level, it has the appeal of the great myths. A hero goes on a quest, defeats evil, and is rewarded with what is important in life. By rescuing the damsel, Hannay finds love, a wife and children. We respond to his story subconsciously, perhaps.
Be that as it may, The 39 Steps is a consistently funny, knockabout show, where the thrills come from the theatrical inventiveness. Even though I’ve seen it a couple of times before, it remains fresh and refreshing, reinforcing my view that it is actors who should be at the heart of any performance, rather than technology.