The 39 Steps at Gaiety Theatre review: Plenty of laughs as comedy trumps tension
This clever adaptation by Patrick Barlow based on Hitchcock’s 1935 film, and also the original novel by John Buchan, is a fast paced virtuoso comic version of the espionage thriller.
Handsome Richard Hannay’s quiet London bachelor life is disturbed by meeting a strange foreign woman at the theatre. She is shortly afterwards murdered in his flat, having imparted some clues about a plot against the security of the British state, thus propelling Hannay on a journey north.
A strong theatrical equivalence is found for the filmic narrative, as director Maria Aitken packs every moment with first-rate theatrical business. The play’s origins as a Brechtian romp are still apparent, despite a layer of West End gloss. The tour-de-force is the trip by train to Scotland, including the chase along the train roof, and the dangling from the Forth bridge.
Richard Ede as Hannay is charming and urbane and terribly British; Olivia Greene is mostly good as the three significant ladies, though a little more tenderness between her and Ede would have enriched the ending. Andrew Hodges and Rob Witcomb show high comic skill as they flit between dozens of parts with hats and overcoats changing at breakneck speed. In the chase across the highlands they convincingly create landscape features, including a cleft in a rock, a stream and a bush.
Fans of the Hitchcock film may be disappointed that the tension is completely sacrificed on the altar of comedy. There are lots of references to other Hitchcock films, including Psycho and North by Northwest, and phrases of their familiar musical scores will reward the cinephile. The show opens with a black and white silent movie effect created by strobe lighting. The occasional use of shadow puppets is inspired. Two bowler-hatted salesmen on the train morph into Laurel and Hardy.
A Christmas ending feels a little out of season, though since the show ran for a decade in the West End, it obviously hit season from time to time.