"4 Actors, 130 characters in 100 hilarious minutes". Uproariously funny and side-steppingly inventive, The 39 Steps is a theatrical masquerade like no other. It’s been a book, a play, a radio piece, and now, the original spy thriller film by Alfred Hitchcock is here hilariously adapted for an Olivier award-winning production at the Criterion Theatre.
Patrick Barlow’s playful adaptation is both lean and decorous. While the mystery of The 39 Steps is a romp of epic proportions, the self-conscious, wink-wink nudge-nudge comedy is deflationary, suggestive of the incapacity of theatre to frame such thrilling absurdities as that encountered on the fugitive trail of Richard Hannay. In frequent satirical nods to the audience, the sets, forms and environments are created as much by the dexterous movement and momentum put in play by the performers as by Maria Aitken’s sparse and movable stage aesthetic.
Sending up the cock-and-bull story from the off, replete with tweed, ruddy-faced policemen and music-hall tomfoolery, we encounter a deflated Hannay slumped in a leather chair, recounting his adventures long past. Suddenly, following a chance meeting at the London Palladium, our dapper do-gooder becomes embroiled in conspiracy and intrigue as a deliriously voiced German femme fatale is murdered in his home. Committing her final words to memory, Hannay makes his way to Scotland, hot on the trail of an elusive German professor who may provide the key to the riddle of ‘ze 39 Steps’ and clear his name. Through a perilously constructed Forth Bridge, to leather trunks as railway carriages, to jerkily choreographed shadow puppetry, (in which the iconic cigar-toting profile of Hitchcock himself features), the production appears as haphazardly balanced as Hannay’s amorous advances to the alluring Pamela, splendidly played with a delectable spite by Catherine Bailey. Hannay always manages to escape by the skin of his teeth, poised, plucked and pulled in ridiculous directions until at last, he is faced with the Professor himself…
Hitchcock was reported to say ‘what interests me is the drama of being handcuffed’ as a driving force within the film, and it plays out here to absurdly comic extremes. And yet, while the characters may find themselves handcuffed to a catalogue of spurious married couples, odd-job salesmen, and cooing Scottish innskeepers – and even at times to one another – perhaps it is the production itself that is at points restrained. The plot barrels along with an enjoyable bravado, and yet there is little substance to the central love story between Richard and Pamela, especially seeing as he has galloped and caroused his way between every other female character, varying damsels in distress ingeniously played by Catherine Bailey, quite literally sweeping them off their feet. There is little heart to all this twitchily moustachioed self-parody. Though hilarious, it becomes more about the sideshow – that knowing wink to the audience – than the show itself.
But who really needs an overplayed romance amidst all of this meticulously wrought hilarity? What show there is is stolen by the magnificent shape-shifting duo of Paul Bigley and Stephen Critchlow, who in absurdist turns move between a vast variety of characters, even playing two characters at once with a vaudevillian delight, and the similarly magnificent shape-shifting stage sets. If you can stomach a little silliness, this theatrical dilly-dalliance is frankly unmissable.
This astonishing theatrical tour-de-force is performed by just four actors essaying 139 roles, but nothing has been cut from this spectacularly silly, side-splitting version of Britain's most spellbinding thriller. Legendary scenes include the chase on the Flying Scotsman, the escape on the Forth Bridge, the first theatrical bi-plane crash ever staged and the death-defying finale at the London Palladium.
Seats in the rear stalls with a face value of £25 are classed as restricted view.
Criterion Theatre2 Jermyn Street
London Greater London United Kingdom SW1Y 4XA
Duration: 1h 45m
Paul Bigley & Andrew Alexander in The 39 Steps © Tristram Kenton
Stephen Critchlow & Paul Bigley in The 39 Steps © Tristram Kenton