When I hear the word Hitchcock, my subconscious mind immediately begins to conjure up images of abnormal birds and psychotic serial killers.
So, when faced with the prospect of reviewing Patrick Barlow’s stage adaptation of Alfred Hitchcock’s movie adaptation of the original John Buchan novel The 39 Steps (did you catch all that?), I really, really didn’t know what kind of horrors I had let myself in for.
However, The 39 Steps play is a clever, light-hearted and laugh-a-minute production that bares virtually no similarity to the thrilling book. This might be disappointing for some but if you’re looking for good comedy and a relatable protagonist with a dashing appearance, this might be the show for you.
Richard Hannay (Richard Ede), an ever-so-polite and accident-prone Englishman, finds himself at the heart of bringing down a secret Scottish society when Miss Annabella (Olivia Greene) is mysteriously murdered in his London apartment.
Her sudden death finds Richard unfairly at the face of a murder trail, but her desperate last words – “the thirty-nine steps” – are all too much for his painful curiosity to handle. As he runs to Scotland to uncover the truth, its clear from the onset that he already knows too much.
With the media, the British population and two particularly contentious police officers on his tail, will he ever make it out alive?
Despite being a modern, straight-from-the-West-End production, The 39 Steps makes use of many traditional theatrical components. Shadow puppets are used to decent effect, and when the fireplace of the cosy B&B isn’t heating up the stage, it’s busy being the bonnet of Hannay and Margaret’s getaway car. Suitcases are everything from moving trains to cars to the Forth Road bridge.
A portion of the humour comes from the staging being deliberately awful with characters making reference to dodgy props and poorly portrayed lighting throughout. We realise that this is simply Hannay’s poor attention detail, being the omniscient narrator and director of his own story, but the effect of this is that there is virtually no suspense present in the plot at all. Criticism also arises in the lack of microphones on stage (there didn’t seem to be any) which made it difficult to hear what was going on above certain sound effects.
With a cast of only four, The 39 Steps is a master class in duplicity. Olivia Greene – notably the only female in the cast – plays three roles whereas the anonymity surrounding Andrew Hodges and Rob Witcomb (simply recorded as Man 2 and Man 1 in the programme) is foundational for the various roles they take on throughout the show.
Their nameless parts find Hodges and Witcomb channelling all sorts of genders, social classes, ages and, even, inanimate objects throughout the performance. (I kid you not: you wouldn’t think a grown man could play a puddle, but I assure you it’s possible.)
Unlike the streamlined Richard Hannay, Man 1 and 2 are challenged with differentiating between numerous roles in ways that go beyond just fast costume changes.
We’re talking about dialect and each character’s unique posture, mannerisms, nationalities and occupations. And it’s clear from the overture that timing is everything in this show.
There’s something remarkable in seeing actors double-up their roles, convincingly pulling off entire performances without all of the singing breaks and the dancing girls that tends to come with highly commercialised productions.
Ede, Witcomb, Hodges and Greene all delivered enjoyable and almost flawless performances in their roles. (There were a few dodgy accents, I’m sorry to admit.)
Aside from the all-too-deliberate slapstick humour, much of the comedy stemmed from their impeccable timing and attention to characterisation.
So, yeah: lots of laughs, lots of slapstick and I’m still not entirely sure what happened at the end – but a highly enjoyable journey all the same!