|Mike Smith and Anna Burgess|
|Sam Haft and Michael Lindner|
Reviewed by Frank McKone
Having been born in the opening salvos of World War II, a period of history I prefer to forget, I never read Buchan’s World War I novel or saw Hitchcock’s 1935 film, so I didn’t recognise the allusion to North by North West as Richard Hannay (nicely played by Mike Smith) scooted around Scotland on a mission to prove his innocence on a murder charge and to save Britain.
If you didn’t either, I’m with you, but there apparently are many still fascinated by spy stories of that era, and happy to enjoy the fun. This adaptation from a concept based on a film of the novel turns out to be an example of English farce – a spoof of a spy story – very funny in parts (like the curate’s egg), but otherwise completely inconsequential.
The strength of this production is not only in the vocal and movement skills of all the actors – Mike Smith, Anna Burgess, Sam Haft and Michael Lindner – in the rapidity with which they changed costumes and characters for the innumerable short cameo scenes.
The major award must go to Alana Scanlan for her remarkable choreography. Burgess’s first role as the murdered spy Annabella was made into a quite extraordinary character by her movement style – even when dead! And Haft and Lindner had all the right dance steps to be justifiably applauded as they took to the London Palladium stage.
The English have always made fun of war, from Shakespeare to the Goon Show, and even to the point where it’s funny not to mention it, but I found too much of The 39 Steps is dated and cliché. The only point where it moved a fraction of the way to more interesting satire was the election speech made by the escapee Hannay who the lower-class locals assume to be their famous upper-class visiting speaker. There’s even a sort-of nod here, reversing the social classes, to Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator but the point is soon lost in the farce that follows.
Since my own (very minimal and entirely amateur) acting career included playing Mr Mole in the English farce Love’s a Luxury (by Guy Paxton and Edward V. Hoile – see http://www.ba-education.com/for/entertainment/sjt/lovesaluxury.html for some interesting reading), I can’t pretend to complain. In fact I laughed along with a substantial audience at The Q, but came out wondering about whether the intention behind this adaptation was to use an expressionist style to turn farce into satire – which really didn’t work – or to simply indulge in a cultish fascination with Hitchcock and spies, which went over my head.
And I can’t complain about the performances. Very entertaining and done with professional precision.