“What are The 39 Steps? Come on, answer – What are The 39 Steps?” shouts Robert Donat as Richard Hannay in the finale of Alfred Hitchcock’s classic 1935 movie. It’s a difficult question to answer for Mr. Memory – but for audiences at the Maddermarket Theatre last week, The 39 Steps is something very silly indeed.
The Norwich Players’ latest production has complicated origins: The show is based on the original Alfred Hitchcock film version of the classic adventure novel by John Buchan, which was then adapted for the stage as a comedy by Simon Corble and Nobby Dimon and subsequently rewritten by Patrick Barlow in 2005 – whereupon it became a West End and Broadway smash. But under all those layers of adaptations of adaptations lies a simple story told in a fun, inventive and colourful way.
The central gimmick of this version of The 39 Steps is that, despite featuring 139 different characters, it only features a cast of four. Harry Benjamin makes for an engaging, if slightly effeminate, Richard Hannay, whose light, sprightly performance combined with impeccable comedy timing keeps the energy fizzing along. He is given excellent support from Elea Hepper as Annabella Schmit, Margaret, and Hannay’s love interest Pamela, whose performance anchors the story with genuine emotion and drama. The remaining 135 characters are all performed by Molly-Rose Treves and Ben Prudence, as two clowns; the former of which is an absolute comedy natural, and clearly revels in every second of her stage time.
Framed as an apparently bad production by a cast and crew very much out of their depth, the show edges towards productions like The Play The Goes Wrong or the popular Farndale Avenue series, with much of the comedy coming from ambition over-reaching their ability. Most of these such moments are genuinely hilarious – particularly with regards to some of the genuinely inventive (and very silly!) use of props and staging to recreate iconic and epic moments from the film on a simple set with just four actors. Only the slightly-laboured moments of “last minute improvisation” falls slightly flat, lacking a genuine ring of truth.
With joyful and creative direction from Chad Porter and featuring running gags highlighting the cheapness of the production – such as a ridiculous haddock prop that is used for every meal – the show is a genuine hoot, particularly if you know the original, or any of its subsequent adaptations. Although not all the jokes land, the show’s scattershot approach to comedy means that you won’t have to wait very long at all for another, possibly funnier moment. However, that said, with little room for subtlety or nuance, the show can get a little exhausting – not to say repetitive – after two hours, depending on your tolerance for the very silly. And it is very silly indeed.
The 39 Steps is playing at The Maddermarket Theatre, Norwich until February 23rd.