The 39 Steps
The Maltings Theatre
Reviewed – 6th October 2020
“Adam Nichols’ direction delivers a well-oiled and well-crafted two hours, though the chaos is overplayed”
Having been at the forefront of the campaign to allow live open-air performance to re-start in the summer months – presenting a two-week long theatre festival – The Maltings is now back with an indoor, COVID-safe Autumn programme. The safety measures are well-thought out and implemented, from bubble-seating to an in-seat drinks service and a one-way system to the loos at the interval, and the delight of this socially-distanced capacity crowd at being back in the building was palpable. This was an audience which had really missed live performance, was thrilled to be back, and was determined to have a good time. The show garnered laughter and spontaneous applause aplenty throughout.
Patrick Barlow’s 2005 script follows on from the original four-person version by Simon Corble and Nobby Dimon ten years before, which is itself an adaptation of the 1935 screen version of John Buchan’s original 1915 spy novel. It’s a rollicking ride of a show, with three actors playing an enormous cast of characters – cops, villains, hoteliers, milkmen, paper boys – as well as the main roles, and one actor playing Richard Hannay, at the centre of all the mayhem. There are costume changes galore, and much ingenious manipulation of on-stage furniture and props to create cars, trains, aeroplanes, and even the Forth Bridge at one point, which is all tightly choreographed and managed with great skill by the performers. Simon Nicholas and Flora Squires, in particular, form a hugely skilful and energetic comedy team as the clowns who, between them, take on the majority of the minor roles and transformations.
James Douglas is terrific as the hapless Hannay, bumbling his way through this extraordinary tale, and Hannah Baker deals ably with the three larger female roles. Simon Nicholas’ chaotic-seeming set, resembling the prop store in a theatre, is a perfect and precise construction, with everything artfully poised to enable the smooth-running of this extremely business-heavy show. Adam Nichols’ direction delivers a well-oiled and well-crafted two hours, though the chaos is overplayed, and the breaking of the fourth wall wears a bit thin. The ‘things not quite working as they should’ gag is definitely overused, and the continual ironic ‘broad strokes’ approach to minor characterisation becomes wearisome and means that, despite a lot of manic stage action, the pace does drag at times.
One of the pleasures of the 1935 film adaptation is the contrast in tone between the extreme seriousness of the task at hand and the joyful silliness of our hero handcuffed to the protesting Pamela. By realising the entire story as a comedy caper, and not honouring the thriller element of the plot, much of the humour’s pleasure is lost. Just as the enlivening bubbles in a good Scotch and soda soften and prolong the complex flavours of a single malt, so the laughs help us to digest Buchan’s rather serious message about the perils of seductive fascism. All soda and no Scotch is simply criminal, as Richard Hannay would most certainly agree.
Reviewed by Rebecca Crankshaw
Photography by Pavel Gonevski
The 39 Steps
The Maltings Theatre until 10th October