The 39 Steps has always been a tricky novel to dramatise. As three films and a recent TV adaptation have proved, to make it a truly suspenseful spy thriller it necessary to treat John Buchan’s as a skeleton, on which to hang the meat crafted by others’ hands.
Probably the best loved of all versions of The 39 Steps is Alfred Hitchcock’s 1935 film, starring Robert Donat. And it’s this one which forms the basis for Patrick Barlow’s stage comedy, first staged in 2005 before a new production directed by Maria Aitken transferred from the Tricycle Theatre to Piccadilly’s Criterion Theatre in September 2006, where it is still currently running.
The touring production of The 39 Steps, currently in residence until Saturday at the Waterside, is true to the Olivier and Tony Award-winning original. It has to be – Barlow’s script is deceptively precise in its comedy. It may look resolutely low-budget in the props department – trains are constructed from luggage trunks, the Forth Bridge from a couple of stepladders – but that is a deliberate part of its carefully constructed charm.
Richard Ede’s Hannay, a suavely chauvinistic 1930s bachelor-about-town, is accompanied by a cast of just three others, with Tony Bell, Gary Mackay and Charlotte Peters taking on a range of roles each. Bell and Mackay in particular must contend with frequent fast changes, playing two or three characters in the same scene with only hat, coat and voice to indicate which is which. This does lead to some frenetic slapstick moments – all of which look off-the-cuff, but (having seen the show twice in the West End) are more carefully choreographed than many a dance show.
In common with Hitchcock’s film, Barlow’s play works best when the spy story is pushed to the background and character fare can come to the fore. Indeed, the audience seemed unsure what to expect until several minutes in, as two secret agents have to bring on stage their own lamppost under which to skulk – and must run off, and back on, frequently as Hannay repeatedly returns to the window to look out on them. It’s only at this point that the intrinsic silliness is embraced by all, setting up many other visual comedy elements.
At times, the attempts to shoehorn in references to titles of other Hitchcock films are a little too laboured. Peters, a recent graduate, doesn’t yet have quite the stage presence to pull off the twin roles of femme fatale and demure love interest that the script demands of her – but this doesn’t detract too much from what is a fun evening of crafted silliness that glories in the twin absurdities of theatre and spy capers.