For all those who remember the spy thriller “The 39 Steps”, filmed in 1935 by the Master of Suspense Alfred Hitchcock, the stage version of the plot is a déjà vu. Yet it differs from the original story by Scottish author John Buchan who concocted a dramatic espionage novel in 1915, the second year of the First World War. Playwright Patrick Barlow, born in Leicester, was bold enough to transform this very serious subject into a highly amusing comedy spiced with all the ingredients of a thriller including loads of black British humour.
Have a look at our short synopsis before we go into detail: Pulled into a web of intrigue and deceit Richard Hannay, the unwilling hero of the plot, is constantly on a run to escape a criminal organization, two “femmes fatales”, weird farmers and wives. Richard is in a great hurry to solve the mystery of the 39 steps. He must stop a gang of spies to threaten national security. Does he succeed? Read on.
Here we go: While Richard Hanney, a young man in his thirties, is on vacation in London he attends a demonstration of “Mr. Memory”, a man with a photographic memory. On the way back to his flat he meets a frightened woman by the name of Annabella Smith who asks him to put her up for the night. She tells him that she is a spy chased by criminals who are trying to kill her since she has uncovered a plot to steal top secret documents that threaten national security. The head of the spy ring “The 39 Steps” is a most dangerous man who can easily be identified by the missing joint on the little finger of his right hand. Richard is at a loss to believe this fantastic story told by a woman with a thick German accent and goes to sleep. In the morning he finds his guest murdered with a knife in her back. When the police turns up and accuses innocent Richard of murder, he manages to escape in the very last moment. From now on he is a man on the run. He takes the next train to Scotland where, according to Annabella Smith, the head of the espionage organization is hiding.
The head of „The 39 Steps“
On the train he meets beautiful Pamela who identifies him as the killer portrayed on page one of all the newspapers in the country. She reports him to the police and Richard manages another dramatic evasion from the train on the Forth Bridge. He is lucky to find a place for the night at a farm in the Highlands. While the wife of the old suspicious farmer is friendly and gives him her husband’s warm coat to protect him from the cold in the mountains, the farmer reports Richard to the police. He is after the high reward promised to the person who helps to catch the killer. But Richard evades capture once again and finally finds a village named Alt-na-shellach where he meets Professor Jordan, a perfect gentleman at first sight. Looking at his right hand with a missing joint on his little finger Richard realizes that he is standing face to face with the head of “The 39 Steps.” When Richard refuses to cooperate with him and his spy gang, Jordan shoots at him. Thanks to the farmer’s hymn book in the breast pocket of the coat Richard survives. Now it is on him to report an attempt of murder to the sheriff. But – surprise, surprise – the sheriff and the rest of the police are befriended with Jordan. Another hope crushed, poor Richard. He is again on the run from his pursuers. All of a sudden he finds himself in a political meeting and is mistaken for a candidate. Without having the slightest idea of what is going on, he improvises a speech which is enthusiastically applauded by the audience. By chance he meets Pamela again. Out of the blue Jordan’s men arrive and handcuff Richard and Pamela to each other. They spend the night at a small hotel in the countryside. With a trick Pamela frees both of them from the handcuffs. After a longer discussion Richard can convince her of his innocence. Now they are free to go to London where – according to Pamela who overheard a telephone call – the spy gang will meet.
Back in the city, Richard and Pamela meet at Mr. Memory’s show and realize that the spies are taking advantage of Mr. Memory’s performance to smuggle the secrets out of the country. When being perfectly memorized, there are no paper documents. A very clever idea. The show ends abruptly when Richard asks Mr. Memory: “What are the 39 steps?” Do you think, dear spectator, that Mr. Memory is able to answer that question? Come and find out yourself when you are sitting in the audience of the English Theatre. By the way, according to a New York critic, this scene remains one of the most gripping moments of the play.
Packed with twists and turns
Packed with twists and turns, this fast-paced thriller keeps the audience in constant suspense. Only four actors – one woman and three men – are playing during 100 minutes altogether 150 characters in this hilarious spy comedy. While James Killeen “only” plays one part, that of anti-hero Richard Hannay, Man 1 Charlie McCullagh and Man 2 Jonny Magnati are to be seen in multiple roles. They appear as police men, drivers, station masters, farmers, gang members and even as women imitating high-pitched voices. An endless mimicry causing roars of laughter in den audience. Madeleine Hutchins plays three female parts. In one scene she turns up as Annalena Schmidt, the spy “with the accent”, a few minutes later she is Pamela, the red-haired vamp who reports good-hearted Richard to the police. Margaret, the sweetly naïve grumbling farmer’s wife with her long blond plait is the most touching figure in the play. A great performance. Thank you, Madeleine. The same refers to Charlie and Jonny, two brilliant actors, dancers and singers who would do honour to every musical show. Not to forget James in the part of Richard who reminds us of Cary Grant in Hitchcock’s 1959 blockbuster “North by North West.” Remember? A New York City advertising man mistaken for a non-existing man by the name of George Kaplan is unwillingly thrust into a world of spies. Just as Richard he escapes his pursuers by chance and is still alive when all the trials and tribulations are over.
Conclusion: A brilliant performance on a grey November evening in Hamburg.
A big hand for director Paul Glaser and his crew of smashing actors!
Final performance of “The 39 Steps” on January 29, 2022.
Tickets under: phone number 040 – 227 70 89 or
online under: www.englishtheatre.de
“Outside Mullingar” by John Patrick Stanley on February 10, 2022