The grimmer the world becomes, the more we want to laugh, the more we need to laugh, and laugh so loudly that any dissonance is blocked out. So praise the lord for the crazy, zany team at Keswick who have brought us perfect theatrical escapism.
Who could have imagined that John Buchan’s strange period-piece spy thriller would become a global comedy success story? Surely not the original writers of this parody, Simon Corble and Nobby Dimon, who bagged a £1,000 Yorkshire Arts Grant, found themselves four willing actors, and premiered in 1995 before an audience of 90 people at the Georgian Theatre Royal in Richmond before embarking on a tour of village halls across the North. Until then, The 39 Steps was only known in film, originally made by Alfred Hitchcock in 1939, with two subsequent versions, all three deeply serious and eschewing any hint of potential comedy.
In 2005, Patrick Barlow rewrote the comedy script and the play transferred to London and ran in the West End for nine years. It’s since played all over the world, and there have been versions in Spanish, Swedish, Finnish and Hebrew, to name but a few.
And here, directed by Paul Robinson, it remains a timeless classic comedy with all the hallmarks of great entertainment – farce, slapstick, impeccable timing, audience participation – executed with sheer brilliance.
There are indeed just four actors, of whom only one – Dave Hearn – stays in role throughout, as Richard Hannay, the cynical and world-weary ex-army officer who finds himself a fugitive from the law, and from some dastardly disloyal spies.
It’s a performance of breathtaking mastery as he bounds, leaps and even dances his way along the escape route that’s both thrilling and ludicrously hilarious. And he deserves an Olympic medal for the acrobatics performed in the Forth Road Bridge scene.
For those familiar with only the film versions, this is how you portray on stage a chase on the roof of the Flying Scotsman, in a car across the Scottish Highlands, and on the parapet of a bridge: with a couple of luggage trunks, a step ladder, some planking and a team of great actors.
It truly does have to be teamwork to create effects such as these, the sound and lighting engineers playing their critical roles with impeccable timing as the three other actors switch parts with high-speed alacrity.
Lucy Keirl, Olivia Onyehara and Niall Ransome exchange costumes and accents at the drop of a hat – and one of many delightful unscripted moments did indeed feature a dropped hat. At another, Dave Hearn tried to keep a straight face as he sternly warned the audience: “I’ll continue when you are quiet.” They laughed all the louder.
A play that goes wrong
As in any good ‘Play That Goes Wrong’, the scripted fiascos are equally glorious: the stuck decanter stopper, the blind that won’t open, the window through which Hearn fails – on four attempts – to leap through.
There’s a surreal, Pythonesque quality in places, the Highland-dancing hotel keepers, the brief appearance of a drum major wielding his mace, the Churchillian speech in which Hannay manages to say absolutely nothing of substance with immense aplomb, the effete voiceover in which Hannay and especially his moustache are detailed by the police.
It’s such a clever script, too, appealing to audiences on so many different levels. We counted four Hitchcockian homages: North by Northwest, The Birds, Strangers on a Train and Rear Window, but we wager you might spot even more.
Just one note of caution when you follow our five-star recommendation to book a ticket: are you SURE you want to sit on the front row?
The 39 Steps runs at the Theatre by the Lake until 2 September. Tickets and details can be found on their website.
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