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  • Flora Gosling

Review: The 39 Steps (Theatre Royal Glasgow)

Frenzied performances and a slow death

Urgh another adaptation of an old film that does nothing with the source material…but what is this? A fast pace? A change from a thriller to a comedy? A cast of four playing over 130 characters? I didn’t know such risks were possible! Sarcasm aside, The 39 Steps is set in 1935 and follows lost 30-something Richard Hannay (understudy Jacob Daniels) as he is drawn into an espionage plot that will take him all across the country in search of the truth and a chance to clear his name. At every corner, there are bumbling policemen, villainous foreigners, and local love interests played by Safeena Ladha, Eugene McCoy, and Maddie Rice.


So are the multiple characters just a gimmick? Well, the first thing to say is that, although I wasn’t counting, there are certainly a lot of them. Even though very few have more than a couple of lines the cast make all of them distinct in one way or another. But having over 100 characters in an adaptation like this is easier than having 20 in something like a Shakespeare adaptation from the likes of Bard in the Botanics. We are always following Hannay, so the Clowns (as McCoy and Rice are billed in the programme) need only change a hat, a coat, and a posture to be transformed. The plot does not have the complexity to make multiple characters impressive – but the cast certainly impress nonetheless. Excusing some poor caricatures of women, the elderly, and Scots (why they thought this would go down well in Glasgow is anyone’s guess), McCoy and Rice demonstrate some superb physical comedy that will appeal to fans of Monty Python and Faulty Towers.


Photo Credit: Mark Senior


But zippy physical comedy can only take you so far – there must also be jokes. For The 39 Steps, a once-serious spy thriller directed by Alfred Hitchcock, to receive an adaptation like this playwright Patrick Barlow must have seen real comedic potential. And sure, the plot plays like a comedy of errors, but so few lines are funny in themselves that it quickly begins to drag. The worst scenes are those where the situation and its conclusion are obvious to the audience, but apparently not to the characters. In one scene Hannay and his reluctant love interest Pamela (Ladha), who are handcuffed to each other, check into a hotel room with only one bed. And yet, after ten painful minutes of Mid-Atlantic flirting, Pamela is shocked at the idea of sharing a bed. It is exasperating.


Photo Credit: Mark Senior


It is scenes like that that give Barlow’s The 39 Steps the caffeinated quality of saying very little at great speed. We are also treated to a slew of tired jokes about hating one’s wife and the like that would be right at home in a 1930s film, but deserve to be thoroughly extracted from a staged adaptation. To top it all off we have an anticlimactic ending that aimed to impress rather than satisfy. On stage, everything goes to plan, even with an understudy in the lead role it is polished. At the base is a solid idea, and one that could take a forgotten story and do something new with it. But somewhere in the middle the jokes were lost, the pace discarded, and the point forgotten. Two stars.


Whispers from the Crowd: "It was brilliant!" "I didn't know what to expect because I know it is a serious book. I thought it was amazing how much they got from those two actors."

The 39 Steps has completed its run at Theatre Royal Glasgow, and will be playing at The Alexandra in Birmingham until the 8th of June, the Oxford Playhouse from the 11th to the 15th of June, the Theatre Royal in Norwich from the 18th to the 22nd of June, Theatre Royal in Bath from the 25th to the 29th of June, the Guildford Yvonne Arnaud Theatre from the 2nd to the 5th of July, the Theatre Royal in Brighton from the 16th to the 20th of July, the Grand Opera House in York from the 23rd to the 27th of July, and the Curve in Leicester from the 31st of July to the 3rd of August.

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