John Buchan’s classic account of Richard Hannay, the archetypal ‘man who knew too much’, has been filmed three times, most notably by Alfred Hitchcock in 1935. It is this early cinematic incarnation that Maria Aitken’s affectionate four-man production gently lampoons.
Having recently played at Kilburn’s Tricycle Theatre, the production is making a welcome transfer to the Criterion in the West End – the ever so slightly shabby theatre under Piccadilly Circus – a venue to which it seems eminently well suited. That’s not a criticism; there’s an endearing amateurish quality to this inventive production where Buchan’s large cast of characters are taken on by a four man cast.
Designer Peter McKintosh keeps the set simple, and clothes and props are thrown about with abandon – a few handy chairs becoming a car at one point, and a couple of ladders becoming a stand in for the Forth Bridge.
Maria Aitken’s production is drenched in the necessary clipped British air of 1930s cinema and includes a couple of nice Hitchcockian references including a rather ingenious cameo from the man himself. Charles Edwards has exactly the right amount of stiff-upper-lipped Englishness as Hannay and Rupert Degas and Simon Gregor are both excellent, dividing all the supporting roles between them and employing a impressive array of varying Scottish accents in the process. However, Catherine McCormack, who plays Hannay’s inevitable love interest (introduced by Hitchcock, not in the original novel) as well as the German spy Annabella Schmitt, never really seems to get into the swing of things; it seems like she never totally embraces the production’s frantic pace and gleeful silliness.
Between them the cast do some nifty work, carrying the plot along at a fair pace, but as the production chugs along, it’s hard to shake the feeling that this kind of thing has been done with more verve elsewhere. Think the breathless take on The Importance of Being Earnest by two-man troupe Ridiculusmus, staged by the Barbican last year, or Kneehigh’s exhilarating adaptation of Angela Carter’s daunting Nights At The Circus.
The production also feels overstretched, even though it comes in at under two hours. Aitken could have easily dispensed with the interval and trimmed things down further, in fact the production would benefit from the odd snip; once the central joke is established, the comic impact of the piece starts to waver and the energy of the performances only just carries things along.
So yes, this 39 Steps is indubitably a one-trick show, a piece of pure theatrical fluff, but it made me laugh, loudly and often, and at a time when the papers are filled with, as Hannay complains, “elections and wars and rumours of wars” that’s in no way a bad thing.