THE 39 STEPS
New Vic Theatre, Tuesday 19th March, 2019
I have seen several productions of Patrick Barlow’s rip-roaring adaptation of the Alfred Hitchcock film version of John Buchan’s classic adventure novel, but I approach the New Vic’s crack at it with relish, knowing I am in safe hands with director Theresa Heskins and a cast which includes Michael Hugo.
Being in-the-round, the production has a fresh feel from the get-go. On the floor, a disrupted circle of letters and symbols keeps the espionage aspect of the story at the forefront, but for the most part the stage is a blank canvas on which the story is played out, with the cast of four wheeling on what they need – invariably with speed, efficiency, and choreographed ‘business’. The piece begins with a lot of frenetic running around, an overture, which barely lets up pace until the final bows.
One of the things that sets this production apart from all the others is the use of original music. Where others have used themes from Hitchcock films and other pieces from the period, Heskins brings in genius composer James Atherton to score the action. Atherton’s vibrant music is cinematic, infused with 1930s jazz, and is tailored to point up moods and moments of action, in tandem with Alex Day’s impressive sound design, which has effects to flesh out mimed actions, invisible doors and so forth.
As depressed but gung-ho amateur adventurer Richard Hannay, Isaac Stanmore is suave and silly in equal measure, throwing himself around with grace and the agility of a cartoon character. Stanmore is matinee-idol charming and is immensely appealing.
But then, so is everyone else. Rebecca Brewer delivers the three female roles of the piece: fearsome femme fatale Annabella Schmidt, impressionable crofter’s wife Margaret, and hapless heroine Pamela – and it’s more than a change of wig that differentiates the characters. Brewer’s comic timing is exquisite, perfectly parodying the melodramatic acting styles of old films.
Gareth Cassidy is spectacularly good as a ‘Clown’ – giving us one broad characterisation after another (sometimes within split seconds) but it’s the details (the turn of a head, the way a character takes a step) that bring us delight. Cassidy is an excellent foil for the mighty Michael Hugo, and they form a double-act of breath-taking skill and versatility. The Scottish couple who run an inn, seeing off a couple of bad guys (also played by Cassidy and Hugo) is almost miraculous in its execution.
There is so much to relish here: the sequence in and on the train, for example, the political rally Hannay stumbles into, the Mr Memory routine at the Palladium… Heskins’s love of physical comedy is unleashed and, of course, she includes her trademark throwing-of-papers and long-distance-combat (I suspect there would be riots if she didn’t), pulling out all the stops to make this traditionally end-on piece a good fit for an arena setting. For the most part, it works brilliantly; there are very few bits that don’t come off (Hannay peering through the window at two men beneath a lamp-post) because of distance and sightlines – but the next gag is always only a few seconds away and the overall standard is so high, the piece is an exhilarating display.
This is a piece of theatre that exploits its theatricality and subverts it. The upshot is a laugh-out-loud, hilarious and admirable oasis of fun in these uncertain times where the right-wing plots are not as covert as that defeated by Hannay, and a fresh take on a modern comedy classic.