The 39 Steps

14 Jun 2012 in Dance & Drama, Highland, Showcase

Pitlochry Festival Theatre, 6 June 2012, in rep. until September

THERE’S something about John Buchan’s 1915 adventure yarn that inspires adapters to play fast and loose.

WHEN Alfred Hitchcock put The 39 Steps on the big screen in 1935, not only did he introduce new scenes, a different route and a love interest for the hero, Richard Hannay, but he changed the very definition of what the 39 steps actually were (a staircase in Buchan became a shadowy network of foreign agents in Hitchcock).

Pitlochry Theatre's The 39 Steps - George Docherty, Kathryn Ritchie, Dougal Lee, David Delve (photo Douglas McBride)

Pitlochry Theatre's The 39 Steps - George Docherty, Kathryn Ritchie, Dougal Lee, David Delve (photo Douglas McBride)

It was in a spirit of even greater irreverence that Nobby Dimon and Simon Corbie came to adapt the story – Hitchcock’s more than Buchan’s – for the stage. In a version staged by director Richard Baron in 1998 at Perth Theatre and subsequently a West End hit when reworked for a second time by Patrick Barlow, they sent up the derring-do, stiff-upper-lip action adventure of the original even as they revelled in the ups and downs of the ripping yarn.

With designer Ken Harrison, Baron took it one step further by mocking the very idea of staging a story that races from London to Edinburgh to the Highlands and back, scarcely pausing for breath.

Using only four actors, this production in which Baron and Harrison join forces with the Pitlochry ensemble on the Barlow version, is as much about the let’s-pretend nature of theatre as it is about a pre-war spy thriller. One part of us is laughing at the limitations of the skeletal set, the toy train that steams across the stage and the crazy scenes in which one actor plays three characters in as many lines. The other part of us is willing Hannay on as he finds himself wrongly accused of murder and complicity in international terrorism.

With extra jokes laced in by Patrick Barlow, including the opportunity to play spot-the-Hitchcock-title, it manages to be great fun without doing serious damage to the original.

The Pitlochry actors are on sparkling form, tirelessly clocking up the costume changes and sight gags. Dougal Lee is a natural for Hannay, the upper-crust Englishman, getting an extra laugh by coughing after claiming to be just 37. Kathryn Ritchie is both resilient and sexy as Hannay’s reluctant accomplice. And George Docherty and David Delve are a splendid double act, evoking everyone from Morecambe and Wise to cross-dressing Monty Python couples as they race through scores of supporting characters.

Nobody’s claiming it’ll change your life, but it’s silly and slick enough to give you an entertaining night out.

© Francis McLachlan, 2012