New Vic Theatre until Sat 30 March 2019
From a manic ‘overture’ in which four actors dash around spinning furniture and clothes racks to the last scene in which two of them are finally reduced to posing as the most unlikely of stationary props, The New Vic’s 39 Steps is an out-and-out crowd pleaser. It charms, it tickles, and it delights.
It’s also unabashedly silly.
John Buchan wrote The 39 Steps in 1915. Alfred Hitchcock realized that sex was entirely missing from the novel and introduced many changes in his 1935 film version. Buchan met Hitchcock after watching the film and told him that he had improved the story no end. If Buchan could have seen this comic stage version, which originated in the village halls of Yorkshire in the 1990’s and ended up an international award-winning hit, I like to think he’d be equally pleased. Novel, film and comic-romp-play each elevate ‘a jolly good caper’ to a pinnacle in their genre.
The action properly starts with inaction, for everything in this production is built on spoof and the subversion of reality to the ridiculous. Our hero Richard Hannay (a dashingly handsome and game Isaac Stanmore) lounges in an armchair in his London apartment and declares himself tired of the world, tired of life. “I know! A visit to the theatre — that should do the trick!”
Suddenly he is sitting among us in The New Vic, promptly joined by glamorous secret agent Annabella Schmidt (the versatile and equally game Rebecca Brewer). Minutes later, she is dead in his bed (he slept in the armchair) and the safety of the country depends on Hannay’s finding, somewhere in Scotland, an arch villain who’s missing part of his little finger — before he delivers vital secrets to the foreign enemy and … something something… the 39 steps (post-dying gasp).
Framed for murder, Hannay’s flight to the far north involves train, boat, plane and car. He’s machine-gunned, handcuffed, lost on the moors in fog. “Everything’s gone a bit haywire, frankly. But it’s invigorating, actually.”
The haywire, and much of the invigoration, comes courtesy of Michael Hugo and Gareth Cassidy, listed in the programme as ‘clowns.’ They play dozens of roles between them and while each is a master of physical theatre, together the sum is insanely greater than the parts. Sometimes they play two roles each at the same time. Coats and hats weave between and around them like alter-egos on amphetamine dancing a Scottish reel.
As for learning what the 39 Steps are, we see at least 39 ways of opening and closing doors, meet as many caricatures with dodgy accents, and are teased with as many different types of code. I’ll happily believe there were 39 clever references to Hitchcock movies and as many Morse code messages woven into the music and sound design, though it all moved so fast I only spotted a handful of each myself.
On the wide spectrum that constitutes what great theatre can be, The 39 Steps occupies a fairly narrow band. But it does so with great verve. Director Theresa Heskins employs many – and more — of the clever theatrical devices she used so successfully in her production of Around the World in 80 days. And her team, both on stage and off, bring the same very evident spirit of creative and joyful commitment to what they are doing. That, like the humour, is infectious. And the hilarious silliness is splendidly sustained to the very end. Not a single step wrong.