Forget the tension, feel the fun

The 39 Steps: John Buchan / Patrick Barlow, Arts Theatre, Cambridge: There's now perhaps only one way to put John Buchan's famous spy novel on stage.

Ivan Howlett

The 39 Steps: John Buchan / Patrick Barlow, Arts Theatre, Cambridge:

There's now perhaps only one way to put John Buchan's famous spy novel on stage. That's to send it sky high, which is exactly what the hit West End show, now on tour, does. And great fun it is, too.

After the pre-war Alfred Hitchcock suspense thriller with Robert Donat and the 1978 movie starring Robert Powell (the one that had him hanging from the clock hand of Big Ben), irreverent dramatic spoof is the best of what's left.


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In this show we get the full panoply of scenes and characters played by just four actors, one of which is David Michaels as Richard Hannay throughout. So it's bound to be - and is - both a hoot and an extraordinary display of clowning and stage juggling.

Colin Mace and Alan Perrin play so many characters, sometimes several at once you simply lose count of them. They are uniform policemen, underwear salesmen, detectives, spies, railwaymen, a milkman, a Scots crofter and his wife, the list goes on.

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Writer Patrick Barlow, the brilliant comic creator of the National Theatre of Brent, keeps us to main lines of the 1935 film. From the very first, too, you get the flicker of the movies, and all the scenes Hitchcock managed to pack in, but with a tongue-in-cheek twist. Barlow's joke is to show us how, without preposterous comic tweaks, this is very much film and not theatre territory.

So, with wanted man Richard Hannay 'fair-haired and with a handsome pencil- moustache', innocent and on the run, we travel all over the place. We have him on the train to Scotland, jumping out of the carriage window, running along the top of the carriages, swinging from the Forth Bridge, arrested by phoney policemen and taken away by car. The waterfall, the stream, the hotel room - handcuffed to Claire Swinburne's icy, but stocking-unrolling blonde - the election platform, the London Palladium - it's all there.

Where the human is impossible, shadow puppets help it all along, be they dancers or attacking biplanes, as Hannay scurries across the moors. It's all over the top, done at a cracking pace and with the cast occasionally stepping outside the action for comic effect.

This is the West End doing the inventive ensemble theatre that is one of the trademark styles of the Eastern Angles Christmas shows and what entertainment it is. Little of the suspense and tension remains of the original. Just the fun.

Ivan Howlett

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