Patrick Barlow’s adaptation of Hitchcock’s thriller is a likeable spoof, and an affectionate tribute to the original film, in which a cast of four play over a 100 roles. It’s won an Olivier and two Tonys and has the self-confidence to bill itself as ‘the world’s favourite comedy‘. But despite its many plaudits I can’t really work up that much enthusiasm for it. It’s fun, and Richard Ede’s Hannay has the requisite amount of dashing charm, but its tricks begin to wear a little thin after the first half. You can see only so many instances of missed cues and bits of scenery thwarting the characters before you want the show’s much vaunted invention to go in maybe slightly different directions.
Dashing upper-class loafer Richard Hannay helps an exotic foreign spy evade some dastardly would-be assassins by letting her stay at his flat. During the night she’s fatally stabbed which leads to Hannay having to avoid capture by the villains, who he knows too much about, and also the police who suspect him of murder. After some hair-raising scrapes he finds himself handcuffed to a young woman (Charlotte Peters), who is initially terrified at the thought of her involuntary proximity to a well-known ladykiller. Is it possible a combination of his dashingness, his derring-do-ity, and his ’30s posh haircut will convince her that he’s a good egg as opposed to a hopeless bounder?
For some reason the play has a number of references to Hitchcock’s other works. These can be subtle (Margaret looking around to see who fired a gun in the same way Tippi Hedren looks at the gas station fire in The Birds) and occasionally just a bit awkward (a rain shower on the moors represented by the shower scene from Psycho). Though in all fairness a cameo from a shadow puppet Hitch is rather lovely.
The 39 Steps is sweet and has some fine moments. Tony Bell and Cary MacKay successfully play the majority of the characters, changing accents, costumes and gender seemingly within the blink of an eye. But despite its undoubted technical proficiency, it really doesn’t quite have the heart, the thrills or the laughs of its progenitor.
Continues at the Theatre Royal until Saturday 13 April.