Classic thriller step ups to the mark

The 39 Steps adapted from John Buchan by Patrick Barlow, Colchester Mercury until Saturday.One can't help but wonder what the late Lord Tweedsmuir would make of this under his earlier name of John Buchan.

David Henshall

The 39 Steps adapted from John Buchan by Patrick Barlow, Colchester Mercury until Saturday.

One can't help but wonder what the late Lord Tweedsmuir would make of this under his earlier name of John Buchan. I would like to think that the author who became Governor General of Canada is now seated in front of some clever celestial telly laughing his head off at what Patrick Barlow has done to his most famous novel.

They've had three goes at filming his great thriller - the first by Alfred Hitchcock easily the best - but without ever completely capturing the essence of the story; and now they have let the Crazy Gang loose on it. And it is a laugh a minute, absolutely hilarious.

It is Monty Python meets the Keystone Cops, a wonderfully zany hotfoot through one of the best-read books of all time. Oh, yes, all the famous movie milestones are still there - the murder, the Forth Bridge, the dastardly German spy with a piece of his little finger missing, the hero and heroine embarrassingly handcuffed together in bed and the London Palladium memory man who holds the key to the mystery. But the only real danger in this is that you might split your sides with mirth.

There's a cast of hundreds played by just four people who milk every situation with panache to produce the sort of delicious double-take acting that so endeared us to Acorn Antiques.

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It is full of lovely old gags, visual and verbal, of the style that did such a marvellous job in creasing up music hall audiences a long time ago but taylored beautifully to rattle this story along like the Flying Scotsman.

David Michaels as Richard Hannay is the only actor to play just the one part. He looks exactly right for the bluff, no-nonsense chap drawn by mistake into the plot by the beastly Huns to make off with the plans of our latest secret weapon. He's rather dim but you know just looking at him that he will never tell no matter how terrible the torture.

However, he has one weakness. The original Hannay was a proper gent and could keep his feelings under control. This one is dying to get his mitts on a girl. Annabella Schmidt makes him an offer he might not have been able to refuse if she hadn't stumbled into his arms with a large knife sticking out of her back.

And he'd happily take a tumble with Margaret, the Scots lass who gives him shelter, if her bible-thumping hubby didn't keep such a careful eye out. Then there's Pamela thrown, into his arms by fickle fate and Hannay's eyes as she peels off her stockings in the hotel bedroom are a delight, crossed by lust.

Clare Swinburn is splendid as all the girls but a special vote of thanks goes to Colin Mace and Alan Perrin who with priceless timing and rapid changes of costumes play cops and crooks, male and female and clearly love every moment of this madcap caper.

David Henshall.

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