NODA Review - The 39 Steps by Patrick Barlow
There can be few people who have not read John Buchan’s famous novel or seen one of the many films based on the book and as such, its place at the heart of popular culture is guaranteed. As a groundbreaking novella, ‘The 39 Steps’ provided the mould for an entire literary sub-genre and (along with Geoffrey Household’s ‘Rogue Male’ and Erskine Childers’ ‘The Riddle of the Sands’) is effectively the font from which the entire thriller genre can claim its heritage. This play is by way of being a loving pastiche of the famous 1935 Alfred Hitchcock film version starring Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll, complete with a dashing Donat-esque moustache for our hero Richard Hannay and the celebrated Forth Bridge sequence brought to life ingeniously on the stage at the Hippodrome too! As this stage adaptation is very much more Hitchcock than Buchan in its inspiration, there are a number of allusions to other Hitchcock films peppered throughout the narrative and the keen cinefile has the opportunity to spot the references to ‘North by Northwest’ and ‘Strangers on a Train’ amongst others. As the writer and performer Patrick Barlow - of National Theatre of Brent fame, who adapted this story for the stage – clearly intends this piece to be a parody of both the thriller genre and the attempt to transfer the cinematic version to the stage, I found the uneven tone of the end result puzzling: more on this later…
A piece which makes much of the humorous difficulties of attempting to recreate the Hitchcock film on stage with just four performers has to have four performers of some skill: fortunately, TAODS excelled here with a uniformly talented cast. Phil O’Farrell led the way as the dashing Richard Hannay in a finely judged performance which stayed the right side of out-and-out send up but which nevertheless was firmly tongue-in-cheek. Joyce Fraser, Rick Whyte and Dan Clay played the rest of the large cast of characters with a confident elan that was bracing to behold: the three supporting players brought style, verve and confidence to the stage and all four players were staggeringly good. In a production of this sort, the technical assistance has to go hand in glove with the artistic thrust of the performances: when summoning up a range of locations, from Hannay’s London flat, a speeding steam train, the Forth Bridge, Scottish moorland, the villain’s mansion, a London music Hall (not to mention a series of ingenious props and rapid-fire costume changes) the stage crew, lighting and sound teams, along with the wardrobe department, have to be intimately involved throughout the rehearsal process in order to make the end product run smoothly. Part of the humour of the piece comes from laying bare the mechanics of stage production and finding ingenious ways of suggesting a chase atop a speeding train, gales blowing through windows etc, and the need for three people to play four or five - or more! - roles at the same time during any given scene. The dedication from the entire production team in making the play really come to life was self-evident on stage and director Andrew Rawlinson is to be most highly commended for working hard with his cast and crew to produce a great evening’s entertainment.
Although the piece makes merry with the idea of a small cast succeeding in bringing the film version of the novel to the stage - and much humour is indeed to be had in seeing the story come to life in a variety of ingenious ways - I did feel that at times, there was an unnecessary drift into ‘Farndale Avenue Housing Estate Townswomen’s Guild’ territory: telephones refusing to stop ringing when picked up; a spot of corpsing here and there; the odd moment of intentional naffness, of things going ‘wrong’ on purpose. All terribly postmodern I’m sure - and attempting to find a laugh wherever possible is something I can often find myself overdoing whether directing or appearing on stage myself! - but I thought it was an added layer of theatrical excess too many. Personally speaking, I felt that there was enough fun to be had in watching the story unfold and how the small and ultra-talented cast would manage to bring each scene alive in a variety of hilariously ingenious ways, without the need for the extra nudge over into rather broader humour.
Nevertheless, this minor gripe aside, the entire production team are to be commended for having excelled in producing entertainment of the highest quality on the stage at Todmorden and to a gratifyingly full house. I am constantly impressed by the high standard of theatrical entertainment on display at the Hippodrome and this evening was no exception: my thanks to everyone at the theatre for a great evening.