The 39 Steps, Tricycle Theatre, London

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Lovers of Hitchcock’s seminal 1935 film will recall that it begins and ends in a theatre, making a transfer to the stage sound sensible. But they will also know that, in between, Hitch’s film adaptation of John Buchan’s spy thriller races about the Scottish moors, featuring fog, sheep, mountains, streams and crofters and, most memorably, a frantic chase on the Forth Bridge. Not quite so sensible after all.

Patrick Barlow’s affectionately tongue-in- cheek version takes all this in its stride, much as the hero, Richard Hannay, handles being shot with barely a twitch of his moustache. It’s not difficult to parody the film’s clipped tones, frantic action and dubious sketching of Scotland and its inhabitants, and Barlow and his four-strong team tackle the task with relish. But behind their deliberately shoestring staging, with its wobbly scenery and makeshift switches of costume, lies the tacit recognition that, even in this early film, Hitchcock was using the scenery as a means to tell the tale and doing so with brilliant, dark wit. What is remarkable is that the story itself still grips. Even here, the Kafkaesque position of Hannay, accused of murder and hence unable to convince anyone that he has discovered a serious threat to Britain, is both comic and desperate.

But the show is also daft and drolly amusing. This is largely down to the cast who, in Maria Aitken’s wry staging, acquit themselves with aplomb. Charles Edwards is spot on as Hannay: dapper, ironic and manly even in the most unpromising of situations.

This is a chap whose innate sense of good form enables him to survive days on the run, save the country and win the girl, despite not once cleaning his teeth. Edwards has mastered the Bond-like art of looking quizzically intelligent even when his character clearly has no idea what to do.

Catherine McCormack matches him in the female roles, particularly poised as the icy blonde, Pamela, who insists on tantalisingly removing her wet stockings while handcuffed to him. Rupert Degas and Simon Gregor take on all the other characters in a virtuoso double act, with Gregor particularly funny as a tweedy Scottish matron.

It is a rather long joke and is sometimes too taken with its own ingenuity. But still, the show slips down as agreeably as one of Hannay’s whisky and sodas.
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