Written in 1915, John Buchan’s pulpy espionage yarn The 39 Steps found lasting pop-culture fame as a seminal Hitchcock thriller, while Patrick Barlow’s 2005 adaptation – reframed as a chaotic farce – would become a long-running West End hit. In 2019, though, it feels decidedly creaky, a preposterous parody with any sense of mystery replaced with intentionally overplayed Carry On comedy.
Director Joseph O’Malley’s complete commitment to the daftness does at least infuse the production with energy. Scenes rattle past like runaway train carriages, stalling only due to a compulsion to repeat any decent gag two or three times.
Jonathan Bourne and Colin Elmer play dozens of parts between them, sketching in the huge roster of incidental characters with outrageous, often grotesque physical and verbal tics.
Max Hutchinson gives fundamentally unlikeable protagonist Richard Hannay the right mix of arrogance and self-regard, mellowing just a little as he learns important life lessons from his time as a fugitive.
Tricia Adele-Turner throws herself gamely into a series of underwritten parts, including brittle love interest Pamela. Despite her energy, she can’t cover the cracks in a production that reinforces rather than challenges the problematic attitudes of the source material.
Mike Leopold’s design runs with the show’s ramshackle feel, with a backdrop of stacked crates and a series of freestanding windows, doors, and gates wheeled on as needed.
Brash lighting from Sam Rowcliffe-Tanner slashes the space with spotlights that jab accusingly at every plot-significant event, object, or facial expression.