Review: The 39 Steps, adapted by Patrick Barlow, Suffolk Summer Theatre on tour, Bury Theatre Royal until September 10
- Credit: Archant
This classic novel by John Buchan about hapless hero Richard Hannay getting accidentally embroiled in an international espionage caper is best known as an Alfred Hitchcock film and it is from that famous 1935 movie that writer Patrick Barlow took his freewheeling adaptation.
A sense of joyous, controlled chaos runs through the whole play as three actors Amy Christina Murray, Clive Flint and Joe Leat play a bewildering number of parts with a swift change of accent, coat and hat while Simon Stanhope remains centrestage as the typically British square-jawed, pipe-smoking hero.
For a show that clearly doesn’t itself too seriously, the plot hangs together pretty well. It has fun with its source material but never undermines it. There’s a huge amount of fun to be had with the characters and the situation and director Mark Sterling makes sure that not one of them is missed.
It’s an epic story involving secret RAF plans being smuggled out of the country during the run-up to the Second World War, there’s a powerful spymaster, murder, mistaken identity, fake policemen and enough red herrings to fill a fishing trawler and despite the laughter, the audience always wants to know how the story will be resolved.
The actors and the audience may be engaged in a gigantic game of dressing up but this is a theatrical equivalent of a dramatic camp fire story. The humour is a device which allows four people to tell a dramatic tale simply and economically. The roles may be larger-than-life, some of them may be caricatures but everyone has at least one foot rooted in reality – even Joe Leat’s glorious depiction of a rather matronly hotelier in the highlands.
The staging is simple, if a little clunky on occasion, but Mark Sterling and the cast keep the adventure whizzing along. Also the audio-visual elements at the start of the show, with Simon Stanhope’s voiceover as Hannay provides an atmospheric introduction to the world that is being lovingly created on stage.
This is a wonderful actors show. It’s a terrific ensemble performance in which everyone shines. The physical business of people moving passed one another on the train is a joy to behold and it was played for all it was worth and topped off with a brilliant multi-character hat swapping routine.
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It may have appeared at times that mayhem was breaking out on stage but it was clever, controlled mayhem and it was a joy to watch. Rarely did an evening at the theatre disappear so quickly.