SURELY one of the most famous of all action-packed adventures, John Buchan’s novel was famously filmed by Hitchcock in 1935, and has been adapted for film, radio and television many times since, with Kenneth More, Orson Welles, Robert Powell, and most recently Rupert Penry-Jones, taking on the role of 37-year-old amateur sleuth and gentleman Richard Hannay, played in Hitchcock’s version by Robert Donat.
It is this black and white, action-and-humour-packed version of The 39 Steps which forms the basis of a very clever adaptation by Patrick Barlow for four actors, one of whom plays Hannay, one plays three young women, and the other two, both men, play every other character in the story, male and female, young and old, from London to Scotland and back. This show is still running in London’s West End, so it was a treat to see it on a local stage at the Strode Theatre in Street.
Street Theatre take on these challenging four acting parts with gusto and bravado, and highly professional standards, with just the right level of Brechtian alienation as the two men playing the multiple roles, John McGrouther and Ian Hurdman, step almost out of character to worry about creating the next prop, be it a car, the Forth Rail Bridge, or a comfy hotel bed. The comic timing, from all four actors, is superb – the “Bob’s your uncle” line was delivered with such precision and honesty that the audience had to check themselves before laughing, and iconic scenes from the film, such as the men “travelling in women’s underwear” and the removal of a ladies stockings whilst handcuffed to Hannay, stand out as dramatic highs to someone who has seen many of the screen adaptations and who first read the book almost forty years ago.
Paul Townsend is completely believable as our hero, Hannay, every part the monochrome champion, with just the right level of mild misogyny and British stiff upper lip, and Eliane Morgan looks and sounds just right as a mysterious spy Annabella, Scottish crofter-wife Margaret, and the girl from the train, Pamela, who eventually helps Hannay save the day. The supporting cast of two playing fifty or more others, though, are given a gift with such a clever and intelligent script, and McGrouther and Hurdman rise wonderfully to the material, never going too far, but developing every character to the limit, from twitches, walks, accents, and clothing, including an ingenious set piece where a coat is used to switch hotel owners and detectives; this is pure and polished stage business perfected.
Special mention must be made of the incredibly slick sound and lighting cues, and to the team backstage who made sure everything was where it should be, so much so that the sound cues are even part of the comedy when they go wrong on purpose, something which requires immense skill and confidence.
All in all, a thoroughly entertaining romp through a 1930s adventure, when a three-piece tweed suit and a pipe were all that was required to be a super-hero, as Street Theatre continues to blur the line between professional and amateur theatre.