John Buchan’s classic novel The Thirty Nine-Steps is a fast-paced thriller. Playwright, Patrick Barlow has captured the essence of the story, yet, and I do not know quite how he has managed it, has arrived at something much more than a ‘send up’.
This comedy stage version is played with seriousness and intensity as if the lives of the hero/heroine are really under threat and that their weird kind of Hollywood style love affair is actually for real. Yet the tone is completely outlandish and airs on the funny side of silly. This dead pan approach to comic performance and the clever use of stage props and light/sound and quick costume changes, are dramatic devices that are time served and are always guaranteed to raise a smile.
Of course, we have the unsuspecting, tweed-wearing Richard Hannay (Richard Ede) who gets caught up with spies, which starts with the murder of the mysterious secret agent, Annabella Schmidt (Charlotte Peters) at his home in London’s Portland Place. The mild mannered, spiffed up and wholly handsome Hannay is wrongfully accused and so is on the run from both the police and from members of the spy ring.
Alongside Ede, and Peters (who also plays Pamela/Margaret) we have Tony Bell (credits include the Propeller Theatre Co and TV’s Prisoner’s Wives) and actor of stage, TV and film, Gary Mackay. Both men whiz through wacky scenes playing a multitude of different characters along the way, most memorable for me being an improbable situation which required the two playing a double set of characters in a hotel lobby. The swap from being Scottish receptionists to trench-coated pursuers, on stage, was sleekly executed.
To be melancholic, yet optimistic, would be a contradictory state of being in real terms. Hannay appears this way whether things are running smoothly for him or not. The portrayal of this Great British, cult-based character was the key to the success of the original book, the key to the films that have followed and is the key to the success in this genre too.
Despite all I say, this is not side split-tingly funny from start to finish in my view. I have laughed louder and for longer when attending other shows. Nonetheless, one has to acknowledge and admire this as a genius piece of work, it has everything from puppetry to movement. This is text book comedy, and a masterclass in drama and theatrical performance too.
Reviewer attended press night at The Belgrade Theatre, Coventry on behalf of Remotegoat Stage. Review published here