The British love a little light self-deprecation. And jolly good we are at it, too. With an adaptation masterminded by Patrick Barlow (of National Theatre of Brent fame) of John Buchan’s 1914 boy’s-own spy thriller, The 39 Steps is full of clichés ripe for poking fun at and has earned plenty of awards for doing just that: the stiff upper lips, sexism and jingoism of the past have been making audiences at The Criterion theatre rock with laughter for the last five years.
The stage show is as much a tribute to Alfred Hitchcock’s 1935 film as it is to the original story. Scenes are re-enacted, including the famous escape on the Forth Bridge, and, if that sounds impossible, other movies and a cameo from the great director are thrown in as well. But this is pure theatre – laughing at its limitations while showing the power of the medium. The inventiveness of a hardworking cast of four, minimal props and faux improv are something to celebrate.
Actress Maria Aitken directs and makes The 39 Steps a joy for its absurdly versatile cast – the actors even get to draw upon all that drama school training pretending to be trees and rocks. Rufus Wright is the dashing Richard Hannay, who goes from worrying about his pencil moustache to running away from a dastardly spy ring. Laura Rogers plays all the women admirably, especially Annabella Schmidt, the spy that Hannay takes home and offers kippers to. The other 135 roles are performed by just two men: Dermot Canavan (having great fun in drag) and, on the performance I saw, the understudy James Hurn who put on such a jolly good show that my only quibble is that he didn’t get the extra bow he deserved.
The 39 Steps isn’t for everyone. Steer clear if you hate slapstick and be prepared for some awful puns. But here’s a tip – the show is great for visitors, even those that might have English as a second language. The humour’s broad appeal means Johnny Foreigner will be able to laugh along as you show you’re a true Brit by laughing at yourself. In fact, seeing this show is practically a patriotic duty – so come on chaps!
Written 13 September 2011 for The London Magazine