The 39 Steps

by John Buchan & Patrick Barlow; dir Tim Willis
Criterion Theatre, Earlsdon, Coventry
15  – 22 October 2011

Most famous as the 1935 film by Alfred Hitchcock as well as two later films, John Buchan’s story has now been turned into a somewhat tongue-in-cheek play by Patrick Barlow, the force behind The National Theatre of Brent and their recreation of epic events with a cast of two; this whole play is performed by four actors playing a large number of parts.

One of those ‘Wrong Man’ stories that seemed to attract Hitchcock so much, in this case, our hero Richard Hannay begins by taking a woman home to find she is a spy – who is murdered before the night is out. Hannay makes his way to Scotland to follow the only lead he has, hotly pursued by police and the ‘bad guys’. With Hannay’s propensity to be smitten by every young woman he meets, he falls for a woman who has a tendency to report him to the police at every opportunity. Still, as you’d expect, all works out in the end.

The script attempts to cover the entire 1935 film in all its details, including clinging to the outside of trains, chases across the Scottish moors and a plummet from the Forth Bridge. As far as I can recall there is nothing missing and much humour has been blended in – not that Hitchcock’s film didn’t contain its own humour.

James Wolstenholme plays Hannay throughout with charm and a certain thirties’ Britishness and Cathryn Bowler competently plays the three women he meets. All other parts, including police, heavies, crofters, hotel keepers, salesmen, etc, etc are played by the two ‘Clowns’, John Elves and Craig Shelton. Each of these many characters were very distinct and had the audience laughing whenever they appeared. I sometimes had to remind myself that there were only two actors playing these parts. John Elves seems to have a particular knack for this but both were very impressive and a lot of manic fun.

And in that lies the main difficulty. There was a strong difference between the high-paced clown scenes, played for maximum laughs, and the more relaxed humour of the other scenes, which also had to develop the story. As the entire play switches between these states regularly, there was a tendency for it to make the non-clown scenes drag somewhat and I sometimes found myself waiting for the clowns to reappear and wishing the romantic scenes would get a bit of a move on. This feels like an inherent difficulty of the script and getting it just right was always going to be a fine balancing act.

I was also a little disappointed by the speech Hannay delivers to the political meeting. In the film, I felt this speech almost stepped out of the story for a moment to deliver a message about peace – one relevant to 1915, when the book was written, 1935, when the film was made, and perhaps more so today. The production seemed to miss that point.

That said, it’s certainly a show I enjoyed.

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