The 39 Steps novel has been reproduced in many different ways. Most famously, Hitchcock put his stamp on it in his classic 1935 thriller; several not as good remakes followed that including a BBC series and radio broadcasts. But of course, the theatrical adaptation depicts a whole different story of the spy adventure. John Buchan’s tongue-in-cheek novel adapted for the stage by Patrick Barlow is an immensely enjoyable experience consisting mainly of dramatic looks ‘to the camera’, exaggerated accents and four actors playing over 150 roles. Director Andy Routledge and producer Nick Barker enthusiastically grab the classic spoof with both hands and an obvious love of the play shines through their production.
The story depicts the dashing bachelor Richard Hannay (Topher Collins) who becomes entangled in a tale of pursuing spies, murder, love and a secret formula: The 39 Steps. The action takes place on a carefully constructed set of ladders, rostrums, trunks and boxes that do so much more than just serve their original purpose. In a play that is easy to over complicate, the cast move easily and comfortably around the set as if it is second nature to hastily construct a car out of a lectern and a hotel lobby from a suitcase. A strip of flashbulbs provides a cinematic atmosphere, paying homage to the Hitchcock film and even casting his famous silhouette on a back drop for shadow puppetry. His presence is felt but the passion for the actual play refreshingly avoids any Bates Motels or Vertigo gags.
The play demands a very skilled cast of four which Routledge’s performance humbly delivers. The two ‘clowns’ (Ben Hollands and Nick Jeffrey) have the challenge of playing a vast number of different roles with usually only a small costume tweak to differentiate between them. The pair give well-oiled depth to every character they portray and their commitment is unfaltering. There were a few issues with uncoordinated physical unison and comic timing but the couple particularly shine as the endearing Scottish hotel owners and travelling lingerie salesmen. The running joke of their shape-shifting illusion is happily embraced by the audience with anticipation for the next comic role. Zoe Moulton tackles the three roles of Russian spy Annabella, timid Glaswegian Margaret and RP beauty Pamela. Each woman has a life and spirit of her own and it is easy to forget that each time it is the same actress! Collins gives Hannay his likeable swagger and is by no means lost in the sea of multiroles; his playful physical theatre and ‘gung-ho’ attitude give him a confident edge.
Spoof theatre is always easy to enjoy but this production’s obvious devotion to Barlow’s stage version of The 39 Steps gave it the heart and integrity that made this play something to be proud of. If things are feeling all a bit too serious right now, I would highly recommend a trip down to New Theatre to lose yourself in some light-hearted tomfoolery. It’s hard to worry about exams when all you actually care about is the mystery of The 39 Steps.