THE 39 Steps has enjoyed a happy association with Yorkshire, first in North Country Theatre founder Nobby Dimon and Simon Corble’s initial stage concept of taut thriller and comic release.
Next came Patrick Barlow’s frantically fast-moving yet unflappable West Yorkshire Playhouse adventure with seeds sown in the earlier show.
Barlow’s spiffing version has since played here, there and everywhere, first given Stephen Joseph Theatre comedic top spin by artistic director Paul Robinson in June 2018.
Five summers on, Robinson revisits that slick, playful jaffa of a show, with the promise of 39 new gags, one for each step, to supplement the elegance, eloquence and elasticity of this dapper and dastardly clever whodunit.
Niall Ransome is back from 2018, in the same role (make that multiple roles) but now called Clown 1, rather than Man. Significantly, he teams up with fellow Mischief maker Dave Hearn, duly mining the hugely popular Mischief brand for dextrous feats of physical comedy rooted in a battle of wits and will against chaos and catastrophe.
York audiences have experienced Hearn’s manic craft already this year in Original Theatre’s three-hander account of HG Wells’s The Time Machine, another comedy vehicle steered by a short-handed cast in a race against time.
On that occasion, in a play within a play conceit, his assertive, egotistical Dave Wells was in such a hurry, he wore tracksuit trousers and trainers.
This time, in a play with a novel and a film within it, Hearn is playing more of an old-fashioned, cigarette-card matinee idol, Richard Hannay, side-parting in his immaculate haircut, side splitting in his comic clambering on the Forth Bridge, reminiscent of a Harold Lloyd or Buster Keaton. Suspense in suspension.
This is but one of a series of scenes that re-creates setpieces from The Master’s movies, complemented by pastiches and references to other Hitchcock classics, with new additions among those 39 new jokes.
The novel is John Buchan’s The Thirty-Nine Steps; the film is Alfred Hitchcock’s 1935 British spy thriller, based loosely on Buchan’s serialised 1915 work. Barlow and in turn Robinson marry the two together, gravely serious in replicating the tone and dramatic peaks of both against all logical odds, while finding comedy at every opportunity without turning everything into a stiff upped-lipped send-up.
This is Hearn’s skill too, serving Hannay’s dispirited mien first and foremost before the John Cleese school of alarm-bell comedy bursts through. Dashing and upright, yes, with pipe and pencil-slim moustache, but newly returned to his lonely Portland Place abode, he is tired of life and its mounting pile of problems. Felling anything but alive in 1935. Suicidal even.
What he needs is…a night at the theatre (don’t we all, especially one like this!), only for a much bigger problem to ensue once there. Not only must he navigate his way through hairpin bends of Buchan’s book and Hitchcock’s film, but now too he finds himself murder suspect number one when a mysterious German woman, Annabelle Schmidt (Olivia Onyehara), dies in his arms after insisting on leaving the London Palladium by his side, desperate to impart vital information.
In a moment typical of the comic invention in Hearn’s performance, he extricates himself from beneath the dead weight of the woman’s body by using the knife in her back as a lever.
Hannay must hot-foot it to Scotland by train. On his fluttering jacket tail are policemen, secret agents and assorted women, all delivered with elan by Ransome and Lucy Keirl’s Clown combo, parading accents and exaggerated characters stride by stride, sometimes side by side.
What cracking casting in Ransome making his return in tandem with Keirl, who is as delightful as she was in Nick Lane’s Cinderella at the SJT last winter.
Onyehara, a familiar name to Yorkshire credits lists from her work with Pilot Theatre, Shakespeare’s Rose Theatre, Hull Truck and York Theatre Royal, is terrific too. Not only as anguished Annabelle, but also as femme fatale Pamela and shy but far from retiring Scottish farmer’s wife Margaret, each drawn to the cut of Hannay’s jib.
Ever straight as Geoffrey Boycott’s bat at North Marine Road, Hearn’s narrator Hannay takes on whatever is thrown at him, defying the need to lead the story-telling with such limited resources, improvising emergency props and scenery, chalking up those extra gags amid the comic carnage.
Robinson’s 2023 company applies even quicker sleight of hand to Barlow’s spinning plates of verbal wit, theatrical anarchy, satirical savvy and visual panache, somehow pulling off their Hitchcock homage without a hitch.
Simon Slater’s sound design, compositions and nods to swing tunes play their part too, as do Helen Coyston’s fabulous, fun costumes and set design, stretched by Robinson’s direction beyond the SJT stage to the aisles and director’s box too.
Look out for the ushers blocking the exits at one particularly urgent moment. Even the theatre is against Hannay! Make sure you too are trapped in his breathless, befuddled world before this month is out. Box office: 01723 370541 or sjt.uk.com.