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The 39 Steps

Birmingham Rep

****

EVERYONE enjoys a ripping yarn, a boy’s own adventure – especially, in the case of John Buchan’s adventure novel, The 39 Steps, if you were a boy around 1914, when it was set.

It was a time when black hearted assassins and spies with obligatory dodgy foreign accents lurked around every corner. The Balkans were in crisis and war in Europe was in the air and we needed a jolly good egg like dashing, debohannay and pamelanair Richard Hannay to save the day.

Alfred Hitchcock moved on to the next war with his 1935 film based on the novel, with the implication the spies, still foreign of course, were agents of the then current threat, Germany, but we still had jolly good egg etc. Richard Hannay defying all the odds and obstacles to save us again.

Patrick Barlow’s 2005 stage adaptation follows Hitchcock’s film almost line for line . . . except it only has a cast of four – plus a stray arm that no one knows anything about – playing more than 100 parts and special effects which look like they were knocked up by The Farndale Avenue Housing Estate Townswomen's Guild Dramatic Society on a budget of less than a tenner.

This is a solid gold, Olympic standard spoof. In short it is glorious, riotous, magnificent and, very British, fun.

Olivia Greene as Pamela and Richard Ed as Hannay on the trail of the mysterious 39 steps. Pictures: Dan Tsantilis

Richard Ede has the easy job of playing Richard Hannay, with no costume changes to speak of – you can hardly claim wearing an overcoat or a milkman’s overall as a change – and the same easy, refined accent of an obvious gentleman throughout.

Oh, and he does have to run from the police as a suspected murderer and from spies and assassins as a threat to their operation; and he does have to scramble over the girders of the Forth Bridge, clamber through windows, run along the roof of the Flying Scotsman, escape over boggy moors and for good measure get shot.

He might be on stage for the whole time but at least he only has one part to remember and Ede does a spiffing job as the jolly, good etc Hannay.

The love-hate interest if provided by Olivia Greene who opens as freelance spy Annabella Schmidt, who sadly never makes it past the second scene, but gives Hannay a clue as to where the secret of the 39 steps is the be found - Alt-na-Shellach – which appears to require a speech impediment and bronchitis to pronounce correctly.

She then appears as Pamela, who gives him up to police on the train, hence the running on the roof, then Margaret the frustrated wife of an ancient crofter, then back to Pamela, handcuffed to Hannay and captured by assassins, after giving him up yet again. Quite a busy lady.

The real grafters though are Andrew Hodges and Rob Witcomb who play the population of Scotland, the Metropolitan police, trainman 1 and 2 passengers, newspaper sellers, boarding house proprietors, assassins, spies, crofters, ladies’ underwear salesmen, a spymaster with a missing fingertip and his wife, various inanimate objects and, I almost forgot, Mr Memory, star of the key London Palladium variety show.

Oh, and there is also the arm that no one knows about but which changes the course of history.

It is madcap and fun, with some lovely touches, such as Hannay dealing with Annabella’s corpse and phones that don’t ring until told to, or fires that wait for the script before bursting into flames.

There have also been some additions to the play which has matured quite nicely since I first saw it some years ago now.

Andrew Hodges as Man 2 and Rob Witcomb as Man 1, shadowy foreign agents lurking under a lampost they appear to carry with them . . .

While Hitchock produced a thriller, a serious spy story building up suspense for a nation of cinema goers worrying about the threat of an impending war, Barlow’s version, from an original script by Simon Corble and Nobby Dimon, is played entirely for laughs and there are plenty of them. The pace is breakneck and the jokes whether spoken or seen come quick and fast.

For any Hitchcock aficionados there is also an I-Spy interest looking out for any nods to other films by the master of suspense either by reference or music. Easy to spot are Strangers on a Train, Vertigo, just a mention, North by Northwest complete with aircraft, Rear Window, Psycho and The man who knew Too Much, among others.

Directed by Maria Aitken it has a wonderful air of improvised chaos, as if it is a real flying by the seat of your pants performance, which in turn demands impeccable timing and a skilled slickness that only comes from hours of rehearsals.

The constantly changing scenes are a tribute to Peter McKintosh’s clever designs while, with a new scene every few minutes, Ian Scott’s lighting and Mic Pool’s sound have to be spot on, even down to a loud slap on the face, or a glance through a . . . rear . . . window.

Technically there is much to admire; the production is slick, it speeds along at the pace of a runaway train, is well acted, but most of all it is fun; a gloriously, daft, silly couple of hours of sheer entertainment. To 05-03-16.

Roger Clarke

30-02-16 

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