Based on the famed book and the 1935 Alfred Hitchcock film of the same name, The 39 Steps is lauded as “London’s Funniest Comedy”, a deserved title which, disaster permitting, it will certainly retain for some time.
The first incarnation of the play, which has now been performed all over the world and has been in situ at the Criterion Theatre since 2006, started from humble roots. It premièred in the Georgian Theatre Royal in Richmond, North Yorkshire, in 1995, to a modest audience of 90, thanks to a Yorkshire Arts grant of £1,000. It then packed its travel case and toured village halls and community centres of the north. It wasn’t until the script was revised ten years later in 2005, keeping the four actor cast size and mend-and-make-do attitude to set and props, that the show began to grow into the mega-success it is now. Nine years down the line, and a horde of awards later, and The 39 Steps shows no signs of slowing down.
The plot is identical to the Hitchcock film – dapper gent Richard Hannay becomes embroiled in a twisting plot of murder and espionage after an innocent trip to a West End show. He is subsequently forced to evade the law and criminals alike and discover the truth about the 39 steps, a code told to him by a dying beautiful stranger. The film takes this plot very seriously, only with the occasional wry and dry wit of Hannay to break the action. The play, on the other hand, expertly reconstitutes the film, occasionally borrowing lines of dialogue word for word, into a frantic, inventive and hilarious comedy. Four actors fill 139 parts throughout the show, often playing two or three in the same scene, using handmade props and purposefully underdeveloped physical theatre to up the laughs.
The plays greatest success, in terms of its comedy chops, is its non-reliance on a single gag or frame of reference to keep the jokes coming. It is the onslaught of visual, slapstick, character, loving nods and homages and the ever popular didn’t-we-talk-funny-in-films-from-the-30s spoofs and jokes that keep this show at the top of the West End must-see list. Film buffs will enjoy picking out the references to the Hitchcock back catalogue, some harder to spot than others, and the rest will find much adventure and laughter in the lunacy of Hannay and his gang.
I personally had seen Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps before seeing the show and my viewing pleasure was increased for it. However, like all great West End shows The 39 Steps requires no specialist knowledge to enjoy it. An American woman sat behind me, who had not seen the film, whooped, cackled and gasped her way through the 100 minutes of action.
The 39 Steps is a play for the masses and such it deserves to be seen by the masses. And with 3,000 performances under its belt and still counting, there may be a time when it’ll be easier to walk into a room and ask who hasn’t seen The 39 Steps.
The 39 Steps is showing at the Criterion Theatre, London. Tickets are available here.