Bored bachelor Richard Hannay gets caught up a spy network in this long-running comic adaptation of the book and film of the same title.
Four actors play 100+ characters in less than 100 minutes. It’s all good fun but there is absolutely no apparent reason or explanation as to why it is played out this way. With more references to Hitchcock films than you could wield a bloody knife at, the jokes jar with the extreme, detailed construction Hitchcock invested in his films.
The audiences’ belly laughs at times feel more like proving that they get the reference rather than genuine mirth. It’s good fun but when you’re quietly smiling while others around you are peeing their pants, it can feel a little isolating. You can keenly feel the desperation of the West End audience wanting to get their money’s worth. They are readily pleased, having spent a long afternoon sightseeing; many are ready to slump down in their chairs in the dark without having to wonder about what to do next.
It’s an interesting point of note that there are only three long running non-musicals in the West End; The Mousetrap, The Woman in Black and The 39 Steps. The later of these two are strikingly similar in staging. It’s Brecht Lite – small multi-rolling cast, and the workings of the play laid bare. The self-enforced economy is where the spectacle lies in both these productions. Whilst The Woman in Black makes sense of these decisions, I couldn’t help but wonder “why?” throughout The 39 Steps. This isn’t helped by the fact that much of it feels cheap. I felt a certain nervousness that the false proscenium arch (inexplicably mounted in front of the theatre’s existing pros) would come crashing down. The wigs and costumes are largely drab.
Sean Kearns and Dermot Canavan shoulder the weight of most of the multirolling and just about manage to keep the pace going throughout. As Man 1 & 2, they are a fine double act, though the comedy Scottish accents, patter and cross-dressing took me back to seeing the Krankies in panto in 1995.
Despite this being a new cast as of this year, a sense of embarrassment pervades on top of the silliness as if the entire cast isn’t quite committing and is tired of the nonsense. There certainly is something humiliating about making your cast take their bows in a shower of soap studs.
The whiff of reluctance on stage seemed to extend to the Criterion’s staff. They will silently jab a thumb in the direction of the toilets when asked or sullenly fill in curious American visitors with the definition of “Bob’s your uncle”.
For only a tenner for prime seats you don’t want to make too much of a fuss but can’t help thinking £10 would go further supporting new work. I made a silent promise to myself to invest on a project on WeFund.com as soon as I got home.
The 39 Steps served well as a Tuesday evening distraction. There is some fun stuff with shadow puppets but you’ll find more thrills and spills outside the theatre watching tourists stumble into traffic as they try to snap Piccadilly Circus.