The 39 Steps at the Criterion
The 39 Steps is the story of Richard Hannay, a bored, rich, anti-social socialite who gets caught up in a conspiracy to sell British military secrets abroad. Trying to thwart the scheme, he is led up to Scotland from London and back down again, all the while being pursued by agents of the dangerous organisation. There are biplane chases. There are smashed windows. There is a pursuit across the roof of a speeding train. All this ambitious grandeur is somehow captured and controlled by a cast of four in a fast-paced comic romp.
Although the play is billed as “John Buchan’s” (the original author of the novel, which was published in 1915), playwright Patrick Barlow is obviously more aligned to Alfred Hitchcock’s 1930s film adaptation. The play is set in the 30s and there are many little jokes and references scattered throughout for fans of Hitchcock, including an appearance from the filmmaker’s legendary silhouette.
The show is incredibly short, coming in at under two hours including the interval, but while the breakneck pace would be unsuited to noir, it is justified by a different tone. The absurd accents, the unhelpfully small cast and the occasional (deliberate) goof turn this spy thriller into an excellent comedy. The performers sometimes move a little too fast to pay the script its full dues, but as with every intelligent farce, it is so packed with jokes that there’s barely time to worry about missing the odd one. The result is a charming 30s adventure that hits every beat with equal measures of comedy, action, romance and thrill.
All these are achieved through the use of slick practical effects that give you no choice but to suspend your disbelief, then make you laugh at yourself for doing so. The set changes are so fluid that you don’t notice them happening (unless you’re meant to for comic effect). The cast work around their size with the use of a myriad of costume changes that slowly get more and more absurd, until the final scene finds one actor turning hopelessly on the spot to have a dialogue with himself.
This venerable fixture in the West End line-up is a light-hearted spectacle of fun that is well worth seeing.
Photo: Tristram Kenton
The 39 Steps is at Criterion Theatre on an unlimited run, for further information or to book visit here.