THE 39 STEPS
Blue Orange Theatre, Birmingham, Wednesday 15th September, 2021
John Buchan’s novel has been adapted several times, each incarnation having precious little in common with the source material. Patrick Barlow’s joyful stage version borrows heavily from the Alfred Hitchcock film of the 1930s but delivers a purely theatrical rather than cinematic experience. The script is peppered with reference to Hitchcock’s films for those in the know.
The whole thing is enacted by a cast of four, led by Richard Buck, who does a great job of bringing the dashing Richard Hannay to life, dashing around the stage/Scottish Highlands, on the run for a murder he didn’t commit, and trying to break up a spy ring in order to clear his name. Buck’s wide-eyed perplexity and skilful physical comedy make him a worthy focus for the action.
Playing the female parts is Kimberley Bradshaw, mangling the English language as German agent Arabella Schmidt, looking winsome in a red wig as crofter’s wife, Margaret, and, best of all, as the romantic interest Pamela, handcuffed to Hannay and falling for him despite herself. Bradshaw’s long-suffering looks to the audience as she negotiates the tortuous corridors of a Highland hotel are a delight.
Appearing as everyone else are two consummate comedic players, James Nicholas and Darren Haywood. They both prove their versatility beyond question, often switching between characters at the drop, or the picking up, of a hat. Nicholas is great value as the treacherous Professor and Scottish hotelier Willy, as well as a host of other roles, but it is Haywood who gives the virtuoso performance, depicting characters with an arch look here, a purse of the lips there in the most consistently hilarious display I’ve seen in a long time. Together, they are a dream of a double act.
Director Simon Ravenhill doesn’t let the close confines of the Blue Orange stage get in the way of his chase scenes and his punch-ups. The action is deftly handled. This is a show that is so silly it’s actually very clever.
It does run a bit long though, due mainly to the time it can take to change scenes. While the set is almost as versatile as the actors, it can take a while to reconfigure, presenting opportunities for energy levels to flag. Luckily, the enthusiasm and brio of the players prove irresistible, and we revel in the fun of it all.
A real tonic.