People used to say, and perhaps they still do, that they preferred drama on the radio because the scenery was much better. Radio stimulates the imagination so there is no limit to where it can go, to what it can do and to what it can achieve. Theatre, on the other hand, usually presents you with a fait accompli; you watch the company’s presentation of a play and you are stuck with their interpretation of it.
The 39 Steps is more like an enhanced radio play. The difference is that a vast amount of imagination has already gone into it, so much so that it is easy to envisage the dashing hero leaping along the lofty girders of the Forth Bridge or running across the moors with the wind blowing through his hair. It’s like a radio play that provides you with a visual aids kit to encourage your imagination to conjure up the true magic. The magician’s props are very sparse; a few tea-chests, a couple of step ladders, the odd bit of furniture, some smoke and a theatre – that’s an on-stage theatre, part of the plot.
Apart from the settings, which transport us from a swish London apartment near the BBC to the Scottish highlands and all stops in between, there is a cast list of 139 characters. 138 of these are played with dexterous and frenetic cunning by Loveday Smith, Mark Winstanley and Charles Bird who, in this show, is making his first professional appearance. It is only Graham Garner as the permanently unruffled, pipe-smoking hero Richard Hannay who doesn’t change his hat at all.
Directing The 39 Steps is a mammoth undertaking and Loveday Smith manages to weave all the threads together into a comprehensive and entertaining whole but I think she would admit that a lot of the credit must go to the show’s creator, Patrick Barlow. I have been a fan of his for forty-years (which makes us both sound very old) since seeing his Messiah, presented by the National Theatre of Brent. The entire NToB, at the time, consisted of Mr Barlow and an unknown, but hilariously funny, Jim Broadbent.
Graham Garner is convincing as sauve, matinee-idol Hannay, the golly-gosh stalwart of the British Empire and Loveday Smith (wearing her actress hat) is just right for all three of the ladies she plays. However, the bulk of the work is done by Messrs. Winstanley and Bird who enthusiastically metamorphose between policemen, spies, hotel landladies, various Scottish people and all the rest, usually before your very eyes – one can almost feel the draught from the hats as they wiz around the stage. I particularly liked their pair of trench-coated, trilby-hatted sinister secret agents who travel with their own lamp-post under which they can menacingly lurk. There was clever use of back projection and silhouettes throughout which added another dimension.
I have known The 39 Steps (or The Thirty-Nine Steps as John Buchan’s book was known) since I was knee-high to a grasshopper. I have read the book and seen the various large and small screen adaptations (including the one by Alfred Hitchcock) many times but Patrick Barlow’s version is by far the best. That said, you need never have heard of Richard Hannay or The Thirty-Nine Steps to enjoy this energetic and original show. The QE2 should be praised for mounting such an ambitious project with limited resources. The audience loved it, especially the bits that went wrong – of which there were a few – but that is only to be expected on the first night of such a complex production and adds to the fun. If you haven’t seen this incarnation of The 39 Steps, now’s your chance. Michael Hasted 6th December 2019