Black Rat Productions likes a challenge. Having successfully tackled Bouncers, Up ’n’ Under and Bedroom Farce with its trademark high-energy productions, the company now turns its attention to Alfred Hitchcock’s classic thriller. Director Richard Tunley embraces the production’s roots from the very beginning, meshing sound, set design and lighting for a convincingly cinematic feel.
Prior knowledge of The 39 Steps isn’t a prerequisite here, though. Taken on its own merits, the play is tremendously funny, zipping along with wit, charm and near-perfect slapstick. Gareth John Bale is superb as stiff-upper-lipped, pencil-moustachioed protagonist Richard Hannay, plunged into a world of dastardly murders, secret agents and beautiful women.
He encounters 138 other characters in all, expertly played by Joanna Simpkins, Sam Davies and Robert Hopkins. The latter two give scene-stealing performances, running back and forth swapping costumes and characters as sets literally slide across the floor mid-scene around them. A marked drop in momentum post-interval slows things down, but the actors recapture the energy of Act I in time for the play’s exciting climax.
Prior knowledge might not be necessary, but the viewing experience is certainly enhanced by it. Patrick Barlow’s adapted script retains much of the film’s dialogue – often verbatim – but those familiar lines are delivered with humour and self-awareness.
A scene on a train is a particular highlight, swapping the tension of the film with a beautifully Python-esque sketch. Not only does it poke gentle fun at the genius of the original script, but proves once again that Black Rat has the talent to meet and exceed the high expectations put in front of it.