Archive for the ‘Comedy’ Category

07/09/11

First a novel, then a classic Hitchcock film, The stage adaptation of The 39 Steps stormed onto the stage at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, and is now celebrating it’s fifth birthday in the West End. To celebrate the occasion, I thought it was about time that I saw it!

 The 39 Steps tell the dramatic tale of Richard Hannay, played admirably by Rufus Wright, who finds himself embroiled in the murder of a suspiciously teutonic sounding female spy. Following a clue left by the woman, Hannay goes on the run to Scotland to clear his name and foil the plans of the dastardly Germans.

Having read Patrick Barlow’s adaptation prior to seeing the show, I knew what to expect. Mixing comedy, satire and parody, Barlow presents the thrilling tale while both celebrating and lamenting the limits of the stage. A long bridge over a gaping chasm simply cannot be recreated accurately, so we must settle for a ladder balanced precariously over some dry ice. Aitken also gives a wink to the audience with little touches as the actors get bored of recreating the winds of the Scottish Highlands, sighing wearily as they shake their jackets vigorously.

Director Maria Aitken deploys her cast of four in an incredibly energetic production. Which involves playing 139 characters between the four of them, often playing two, even three characters at the same time with hilarious comic effect. The costume changes are rapid, sometimes represented by a simple change of hat, and the jokes have been lifted straight from Brighton Pier  – “I’m not surprised,” The sherriff says, as our hero is saved by a bullet-proof hymn book  “Some of these hymns are terribly hard to get through.”

Rufus Wright is fantastic as Richard Hannay, unflappable despite what is thrown at him, and lovingly paying homage to the Robert Donat role of Hitchcock’s classic. Laura Rogers plays mosdt of the female roles in the production, embodying the classic Hitchcock blonde, but also playing a Scottish farmers wife and an archetypal femme fatale. Dermot Canavan and James Hurn (understudying for Sean Kearns during our performance) have the most fun though, playing all the other roles in the show including everyone from underwear salesmen to railway porters, policemen to government officials.

This show is a celebration of the simplicity of the stage, and that is it’s greatest asset. While just round the corner Les Miserables is recreating the barricades of the French revolution with a high tech set, The 39 Steps is creating similar dramatic images on a shoestring, and it’s equally brilliant and just a lot of fun to watch.

It’s not without flaw of course, with all the hi-jhinks on stage, the story is somewhat undermined in places, and the Hitchcock thriller isn’t really all that thrilling, taking the form of a vaudevillian comedy instead. That’s just fine by me, of course, but I think there was a possibility to marry the two together. Saying that, if it ain’t broke don’t fix it – and the audience lapped up the tale when we attended.

This show is not the greatest play the world has ever known, nor is it going to challenge your take on the world – but it is an awful lot of fun and a great night out. The 39 Steps absolutely deserves it’s spot on the West End – there really isn’t another regular West End show that gives the audience what this does. A heartfelt story, a bit of murder-mystery, and a spectacular pencil moustache.

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