The 39 Steps

Theatre Hawke’s Bay  
21–30 March 2019, The Playhouse, Hastings
Review by Anna Soutar

This play has been through a few transformations since the first Richard Hannay novel by John Buchan introduced a post-war public to a red-blooded hero, the James Bond, or Jack Reacher of his day. Suave, good looking, willing to undertake any amount of derring–do that presented itself, Hannay defined the word ‘heart-throb’ in the 1930s.

It first saw life as a book, complete with Russian spy and an assortment of local yokels to tangle the plots up considerably, then a film made by the master of the thriller, Alfred Hitchcock. This version comes from Patrick Barlow, contrived in such a way as to allow am-dram performers to take what they want and contribute their own twists. As the author says in the text, “Just take what looks helpful or fun and invent the rest.”

To describe the simple view, it’s a four-hander comedy, just this side of farce, with lots of slap stick and costume changes. At a much more complex level, take a look at the programme: on one side a sort of map of the Scottish Highlands and on the other, the people involved in the show. Yes, four actors, but no less than 28 stage crew.

James McCaffrey is the debonair, slightly dim-witted hero who gets buffeted by life’s maelstroms and some unlikely, almost unbelievable situations which must threaten his stiff upper lip – with that pencil-thin moustache – no end. Natalie Sandbrook is his femme fatale, all willowy and exotic, with her accent from somewhere south of the Baltic or maybe the Bronx. Robb Hickey and Gerard Cook carry the biggest burden of costume changes of wigs-hats-skirts not to mention accents – I think Hickey playing the bagpipes was my personal favourite and the scene which captured my heart was the I’m Sorry, I’m Sorry, I’m Sorry four-side seat changing, played out in a small space while the train was moving. It was a delight.

Not far behind was the routine Hannay and the lady of the Manor (Hickey again) go through when s/he is showing our hero through the laird’s castle in and out of doors. We can’t see the castle, but we get to know its layout, especially where the party is happening – thanks to some fast timing on the part of the sound crew. The whole stage crew deserve mega-plaudits for their deft positioning and removal of the merest suggestion of scenery, furniture and props. (Yes, I know, you will all be wondering if the scene much photographed in Hitchcock’s filmographies, the one with the aeroplane dive-bombing Hannay as he escapes across a ploughed field, features in this unlikely setting – it does! But you will have to go and see it to find out how this talented team bring it off.)

This production owes a lot to wonderful comic genius laid down in the past, from Abbott and Costello to Spike Milligan, and I’m sure I saw traces of the Topp Twins in some of the gender-swapping routines, but there is room for sympathy for the otherwise straight man in the group, Richard Hannay himself (James McCaffrey). He is the butt of most of the humour, but he has to sail through it with his dignity and earnest endeavour intact. One of his silliest moments is when he has to divest himself of the dead body of the Russian spy draped across his lap with a knife sticking out of her back. He does this silently and with agile control, but I can’t help wondering if it might relieve the tension if he could groan or snarl or shriek (just a little) while he is doing it – the trouble with silence is there is no cover for an audience to giggle or guffaw under, if you get my meaning. More moaning please, James!

All in all, a hilarious romp.

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