The 39 Steps

Published April 17, 2008

Reproducing an action-filled adventure film for the stage is a daunting task for anyone, but Patrick Barlow’s comical adaptation of John Buchan's The 39 Steps, which opened last night at the Criterion following a successful run at the Tricycle, fits the bill with its fast pace, four-person cast and knowing comical nods to the theatre's limits. Kathryn Merritt attended the first night and was swept along with the action.

The play begins with our dashing hero, the charmingly snobbish bachelor Richard Hannay (a brilliantly deadpan Charles Edwards), pondering what to do with his evening. He’s after something "mindless and trivial", and decides, "I know, a West End play!" Little does he know that the events that unfold after attending the play will be anything but trivial.

Hannay is accused of a murder he didn't commit (of Catherine McCormack's femme fatale, Annabella Schmidt) and subsequently goes on the run from a German spy ring – the eponymous organisation, the '39 Steps' – to Scotland, all the while trying to clear his name. Along the way he encounters myriad characters, including a cheeky milkman, an eccentric couple who live on a remote Scottish farm, lingerie salesmen, detectives, cops, Scottish dancers, a mumbling election chairman, a sinister German professor and an icy blonde, to name but a few.

With just four actors playing more than 150 roles, the narrative is told at breakneck speed. Rupert Degas and Simon Gregor play the majority of characters – an astounding 146 in total – and deftly handle the task, with lightning-quick changes of accents, costume and props. Special mention must also go to Director Maria Aitken and Movement Director Toby Sedgwick for staging the near-impossible feats of a chase across the top of a moving train, a bi-plane crash, a frantic pursuit across the foggy moors of Scotland and the scaling of the Forth Bridge; all handled by the actors without the help of fancy props and technology.

Of the three film versions of John Buchan's classic novel, Alfred Hitchcock's 1935 offering is considered the best. Barlow's adaptation (based on an original concept by Simon Corble and Nobby Dimon) is most faithful to Hitchcock's version, and the actors make it their own at the Criterion. KM