Review: Alfred Hitchcock's The 39 Steps at Cheltenham Everyman
PUBLISHED: 11:54 26 January 2016 | UPDATED: 12:58 26 January 2016
Katie Jarvis discovers that a play about an innocent man who learns too much about a dangerous spy ring and is then pursued across Scotland is based on but different from a book about an innocent man who learns too much about a dangerous spy ring and is then pursued across Scotland, which is also different from a film about an innocent man… Oh, you know. And she also laughs a huge amount. Brilliant.
Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps? Golly! It’s jolly good! Especially the production now on at Chelters.
There’s this poor blighter, Richard Hannay, who lives in this dull little rented flat in Portland Place. And, crikey! He’s tired of the world and tired of life, to be honest. So Hannay (super moustache!) frequents the theatre, where Mr Memory (“50 new facts every day!”) is performing memory feats with his brain that he’s pre-donated to the British Museum for scientific purposes. Then an absolute beauty fires a pistol and – gosh! - all hell lets loose. Hannay ends up on this wild goose chase around Scotland, often handcuffed to a blond, who is, at times, immune even to his super moustache: “You are utterly horrid and beastly and heartless! I’m not surprised you are an orphan.”
Owing to poor research and a somewhat hectic week, Ian and I truck up at Cheltenham Everyman suspecting we’re going to see a spy thriller written by John Buchan while ill in bed with a duodenal ulcer (I wiki-ed it). But our suspicions are misplaced. Because – I’ll explain this quickly and simply - the original Buchan novel, set in 1914, in which an innocent man learns too much about a dangerous spy ring and is then pursued across Scotland is very different from the subsequent Hitchcock film in which an innocent man learns too much about a dangerous spy ring and is then pursued across Scotland, which was then turned into an inferior version by Ralph Thomas’s 1959 film, which is similar in that it involves an innocent man who learns too much about a dangerous spy ring and is then pursued across Scotland, or the 1978 version by Don Sharp, which combines the plot from all three.
In fact, what we get to see is different again! It’s a completely different version from any of the above, and revolves around the story of an innocent man… Look. The thing is, the story is quite similar but THIS VERSION IS HILARIOUS! Honestly. Seriously. This is one of the funniest plays I’ve seen in the theatre, though it’s quite hard to explain why.
Firstly, the 130 characters who appear are played by just four actors, whose fast and furious changing means they almost appear in the right costume at the right time, at least almost in some of the scenes. Poor stage technology means they not only have to multi-task on character work, but they also have to create by hand any illusions the script demands – such as strong gusts of wind in those gusty Highlands, blowing clothes around (amazingly recreated by flapping clothes by hand); marshy bogs (amazingly recreated by stepping over a man in a dark raincoat); getting stuck in a marshy bog (amazingly recreated by the man in dark raincoat grabbing someone’s leg); and train journeys (amazingly recreated by using four chairs and people wobbling whenever they get up).
The spiffing moustache attached to the rest of the man is played marvellously by Richard Ede (Richard Hannay), whose face plays the part with the sort of admirable straightness that only successful faces can muster. While Olivia Greene (Pamela/Annabella/Margaret) is the perfect Hitchcock blond: innocent yet sexy; cultured yet naïve; aloof yet handcuffed to the hero.
Andrew Hodges (man 2, man 4, man 6, man 8, man 10, man 12, man 14, man 16, man 18, man 20, man 22, man 24, man 26, man 28, man 30, man 32, man 34, man 36, man 38, man 40, man 42, man 44, man 46, man 48, man 50, man 52, man 54, man 56, man 58… oh, you get the hang of it) works harder than anyone I’ve ever seen in the theatre, apart from Rob Witcomb, who plays man 1, man 3, man 5, man 7, man 9… Oh, for goodness sake, etc. An absolutely first-class cast.
What could be funnier than a play about an innocent man who learns too much about a dangerous spy ring and is then pursued across Scotland? OK – quite a lot, in theory. But take my word for it: in practice, you’ll be laughing every 39 step of the way. Capital.
Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps, adapted by Patrick Barlow, at Cheltenham Everyman from Tuesday, January 19-Saturday, January 23
The Everyman Theatre, Regent Street, Cheltenham GL50 1HQ, 01242 572573; www.everymantheatre.org.uk