Theatre Review: The Thirty-Nine Steps

Review of Peter Barlow’s production of The Thirty-Nine Steps, which showed at Sheffield’s Lyceum last week. 

The worlds, scenarios and characters created by Scottish novelist John Buchan were never wholly believable. But then neither were they in the likes of Kipling’s Soldiers Three. Their charm and appeal lay in the balance each author struck between acute observation and a romanticised take on adventure that saw each catch the spirit of their respective ages, becoming representative shorthand for particular types of Britishness. In Buchan’s case this was a sort of late-Edwardian English gentleman: stiff and mannered, especially around ladies, uninterested in sex, ill-at-ease in a modern world characterised by cleverness, deceit and greed; he would be desirous of a quiet life but capable of springing into action when his back was placed against a wall.

These archetypes have proved fertile ground for comedic send-ups since they first appeared, and Peter Barlow’s adaptation of Buchan’s classic fully mines the seam established by the likes of Beyond the Fringe, Monty Python, and Blackadder. First opening in 2006, Barlow’s irreverent take on The Thirty-Nine Steps proved such a success that took the Olivier Award for Best New Comedy before running for nine years at the Criterion Theatre, Piccadilly. In its incarnation at the Sheffield Lyceum the play engages the audience by admitting the impossibility of staging the epic flight of Richard Hannay, the hero, across Britain with only four actors – and then attempting to do just that. Richard Ede plays the part of Hannay, forced to flee to Scotland after the glamorous spy he has befriended has been murdered in his apartment. On Hannay’s journey away from and then back to the murderous spy ring behind the foul deed, we are invited to laugh at the Lyceum’s inability to create realistic impressions of a long train journey in the golden age of steam – but also the brio, energy, and playfulness that the production and cast bring to realising these endeavours. Olivia Greene plays some (but not all) of the female roles, shifting between femme fatale, English rose and Scots dreamer with ease, while Andrew Hodges and Rob Witcomb play the ubiquitous ‘Man 1’ and ‘Man 2’, piloting them assuredly through a breezy series of comedy double-act set-pieces.

The deliberate limitations of the adaptation are an intrinsic part of its charm (that Hitchcock chose to shoot his version of the story almost entirely in the studio had no detriment to the finished product either. It is still considered one of his best films). First published in 1915, The Thirty-Nine Steps became the template for the twentieth-century gentleman-adventurer thriller in literature and film alike. Sapper’s ‘Bulldog’ Drummond, Charteris’ Simon Templar and Fleming’s James Bond all tipped their hats to Buchan and Hannay. Yet the qualities that drew Alfred Hitchcock to transfer Buchan’s work to celluloid in 1935 are the same ones that allowed Patrick Barlow to successfully transfer it to the stage and for this 2016 production to succeed. The same vertical shifts of plot and scene, a wicked set of villains and a reluctant hero involved in a game played for high stakes are as useful when you’re constructing a comedy as they are when you’re engineering a thriller. Those coming to the show expecting a taut, menacing thriller – Buchan as done by Hitchcock – may have to take a moment or two to orientate themselves. From the moment the curtains pull back and Ede’s Hannay sits back in his armchair, cradles his glass of scotch and engages the audience with his story the verbal, physical and sight gags come thick and fast. They’re handled with flair and gusto by the cast and enhanced by the minimalist stage design.

Buchan and Hitchock’s Hannay was always more of an innocent abroad than an agent motivated by calculation and self-interest. Motivated by loyalty, either to friends or country, he was a late-Edwardian version of the strong, silent type that upheld chivalric values – a bridge between Kipling’s late-Victorian upright men and the cynical worldly-wise characters of Fleming and Le Carré. Barlow’s adaptation similarly extracts comedic value from the same materials. Ede’s Hannay has grit and pluck in abundance, but he is not simply a stoic who endures and then overcomes. This is a self-aware Hannay, a man with a twinkle. Ede has to play it straight and react verbally and physically as Hannay would, and does, but the occasional knowing glance, wry smile, or raised eyebrow lets us know that he’s in on the joke and that this is a ripping yarn he’s enjoying as much as us.

There are, of course, holes. What Hannay sets off in pursuit of and why is never fully explained. This could be taken as a case of Barlow and the production relying on the themes and tropes of The Thirty-Nine Steps being taken as understood – if it wasn’t for the fact that these holes were never really fully explained in Buchan’s novel or Hitchcock’s adaptation either. In the original novel and Hitchcock’s adaptation, Hannay is off and running for his life from the get-go. It is the breathless nature of his headlong flight from frying pan to fire and back again as he tries to piece together what he has stumbled across that is as gripping as the plot itself. In Barlow’s adaptation, this flight is the scaffolding on which the jokes are hung and signals the pace at which they must arrive. That they do and that they generally hit their targets is a tribute to this production and its cast. Go, allow your stiff upper lip to quiver and be entertained.

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