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 The Theatreguide.London Review

The 39 Steps
Criterion Theatre   2006-2015

It's not an obvious idea - to turn a classic thriller into a farce but adapter Patrick Barlow pulls it off delightfully in this lovingly disrespectful version of John Buchan's 1915 novel and Alfred Hitchcock's 1935 film, first seen in Leeds last year, and now transferred from London's fringe Tricycle Theatre.

Both novel and film are built on an outline that would be copied by dozens of later thrillers, with the hero on the run from both the cops and the bad guys - Hitchcock himself would use the formula again repeatedly, most notably in North By Northwest.

In this case, idle-rich-guy Richard Hannay gets caught up in a spy plot and framed for murder, and must race around Scotland trying to catch the baddies before the police catch him.

(A bit of pedantry, which you may skip: Most of what you think you know of the book isn't actually there, but was added by Hitchcock and his screenwriter. The book has no girl, no handcuffs, no Mr. Memory and - for those who best know a 1978 film version - no hanging from Big Ben's clock. Buchan's focus is on the string of ordinary people who help Hannay.)

Adapter Barlow uses the Hitchcock version as his main source, turning it into comedy by looking a bit askance at some of the genre conventions and by reducing the cast to four actors, whose obvious doubling and quick changes become central to the joke.

So, for example, the dead man who sends Hannay on the run becomes a Mysterious Woman with a foreign accent of Clouseau-ish thickness.

The actress then reappears as the girl whom handcuffs make his unwilling partner in flight, while two other actors play Everyone Else, sometimes having to be two or three people in the course of the same short scene.

This is the sort of show in which a train journey is depicted by a toy chugging across the stage and an overland chase by shadow puppets, in which one of the Everyone Elses has to pause a scene when the other notices he's forgotten an essential prop, in which the police reports on the fugitive linger over how attractive he is.

In short, no opportunity for a quick laugh is missed. Even the music track, borrowed from a couple of classic Hitchcock films, is a knowing inside joke.

Charles Edwards plays Hannay with an engaging blend of heroic insouciance and wide-eyed befuddlement, and Catherine McCormack is appropriately absurd as the mystery woman and spunky as the heroine.

Much of the fun of the evening comes from Rupert Degas and Simon Gregor playing everything from police to baddies to Mr. Mystery to a Scottish landlady to a bog and a thorn bush, all with impeccable timing and comic energy.

Director Maria Aitkin, more usually associated with the high comedy of Noel Coward, displays a deft hand (I had originally mis-typed 'daft', which could equally apply) at physical farce.

The evening may not be quite as mercilessly frantic as you might hope - it doesn't send you out aching with the pain of uninterrupted laughter - but as a nice gentle couple of hours of light and loopy fun, it can hardly be bettered.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review of  The 39 Steps - Criterion Theatre 2006
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