The 39 Steps is a rollicking piece of literature, and at least two good films that I can think of, but it’s an extremely visual and physical one – especially in terms of the climax in one of the films.
With no prior knowledge of the stage version, currently on at the Liverpool Playhouse, I’d wondered about how it would translate.
The answer should have been obvious from the posters – drawn in a kind of rip-roaring noir style – and indicative of the tone of the play. It’s the 39 Steps redrawn as a pastiche, or even a farce. And it works quite superbly.
Using the Hitchcock film as a template, the play extracts the maximum possible comedy value from the settings, archetypes and the form.
As a four-hander, it falls to three of the cast to don multiple personalities, accents, coats, genders, ages and even items of the set. There’s little attempt to cover this up, indeed it’s played up to at every turn.
There’s a real joy to the cast struggling with the physical and actorly demands of the narrative. It’s all very meta, with deliberate fluffs and lots of Hitchcock asides, but it fits beautifully.
Richard Braine and Dan Starkey, particularly, are on the receiving end of the play’s character’s twists and turns – and the whole thing is redolent of a slightly Wodehosian air of particularly British mayhem.
Or maybe that’s because I spent the whole play trying to work out what I’d seen Braine in. Lots of things is the answer, but I was thinking of his turn as Gussy Fink-Nottle in ITV’s 90s Jeeves and Wooster.
Katherine Kingsley is dishy and amusing in every role, whereas Dugald Bruce-Lockhart as Hannay is so much early-C20th boys adventure tale heroic leading man it’s hard to believe he’s not simply playing himself.
Every bit of the 39 Steps works wonderfully – it’s an absolute pleasure. The little things – the Hithcock references, the snow falling fro the ceiling at the end, the staff dressed up in period garb. Make sure you catch it before the end of the year.