Sunday 18 March 2018

Staggering staging of a Hitchcock classic

This version of the '39 Steps' is clever and innovative

Rob Witcomb and Richard Ede in The 39 Steps. Photo: Dan Tsantilis
Rob Witcomb and Richard Ede in The 39 Steps. Photo: Dan Tsantilis

Anne Marie Scanlon

The 39 Steps began life as a novel of derring-do, written by John Buchan in 1915. The story follows the adventures of Richard Hannay, a typical jolly nice English chap, as he becomes embroiled in a spy ring, is wrongly accused of murder and makes it his mission to see traitors unmasked. Unsurprisingly, the tale has been filmed three times, originally in 1935, and it is that version, directed by Alfred Hitchcock, that the stage version is based upon.

The film follows Hannay from London to the Highlands of Scotland and back again and is famous for a chase scene both in and on the legendary Flying Scotsman steam train.

How can a stage performance faithfully re-enact such a show-stopper? Or accurately portray Hannay and Pamela's flight across Scottish bogs and brooks? That is the real genius of this production: it makes superb use of all the physical constraints presented by moving a story that is largely outdoors and action-based onto a stage. The result is a production that is clever, innovative, but most of all, fun.

I won't reveal how the Flying Scotsman scene plays out, but it got one of the biggest laughs of the show. As did the famous Forth Bridge. The original film has a vast cast of characters from London policemen to Scottish crofters to campaigning politicians. The play has a cast of four. Richard Hannay is played by Richard Ede, who certainly looks the part, and manages to make the pencil moustache look as attractive as it allegedly was in 1935. The remaining characters are divvied up between Olivia Greene (who plays Annabella, Margaret and love interest Pamela) and Rob Witcomb and Andrew Hodges, who play Man 1 and Man 2 - and everyone else.

Witcomb drags up on a couple of occasions and makes a curiously attractive woman. Three older gentlemen sitting behind me seemed very taken with the Professor's Wife, although I preferred his kilt-wearing Scottish landlady. All four actors do a great job, but Witcomb and Hodges, with their endless costume and character changes, work particularly hard. While the whole show is deliberately haphazard - with OTT performances, elements of farce and a hint of am dram - director Maria Aitken has kept everything tight. (Aitken is the sister of controversial former British Conservative government Cabinet minister Jonathan Aitken).

Few amateurs could perform the physical comedy that these actors undertake. And equally, few athletes would be able to enact Annabella's death - well, they might, but they wouldn't have Greene's marvellous comic timing, which makes the scene hilarious. (Yes, a death scene - it's that kind of show.)

Like the late Les Dawson playing piano badly, it takes a lot of skill to look unskilled and these performers are so skilled you don't realise how hard they are working.

At times there's a panto feel, with actors giving the audience knowing nods, and there's a feeling of collusion between cast and audience - we are all in on the joke, and it is a pretty funny one.

Another joke we're in on is the name-dropping of famous Hitchcock films. And, as Hitchcock was famous for making cameo appearances in his films, this show is no different. Keep an eye peeled for that famous silhouette. And, whatever happens, do not give in to the temptation to shout out questions for Mr Memory to answer. He's not really Mr Memory - it's pretend!

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