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Brighton Year-Round 2021

The 39 Steps

Brighton Little Theatre

Genre: Adaptation, Comedy, Theatre

Venue: Brighton Little Theatre


Low Down

Directed by Harry Atkinson, Movement Director Edd Berridge, Choreography Patti Griffiths, Stage Manager/Props Felicity Clements, DSM Martyn Coates, ASM/Props Claire Prater.

Set Design Construction and Painting Tom Williams, Set Construction and Painting, Allison Williams, the Cast. Lighting and Sound Design Beverley Grover, Lighting and Sound Operation Glenys Harries-Rees, Costumes Laura Johnston, Christine Fox, Prop Making Jay Davies, Photography Miles Davies. Till December 18th.


It seems pure Patrick Barlow, but as a typically neat little detail on the programme reminds us Simon Cobble and Nobby Dixon (no, me neither) had come up with it. They must’ve thought it was pure Barlow too.

I mean – to pay homage through farce to John Buchan’s elegantly gruff 1915 thriller The 39 Steps without guying it is a feat. But this is Hitchcock’s 1935 film version – and Buchan himself infinitely preferred Hitch’s often comedic take to his own! I think he’d have liked Barlow’s too. Though Barlow neatly returns to the original novel to start Hannay’s narration, flecked with a bit of the black dog.

Barlow’s adaptation had four cast, three multi-roling. Director Harry Atkinson expands this to five, to ease the burden on the now three ‘Clowns’ and this works superbly. There’s never more than four on the stage.

Philip Keane plays Richard Hannay throughout, the once-bored man on the run for a murder he didn’t commit. Lou Humphries is first spy Annabella Schmidt, then oppressed young wife Margaret McTyte, and finally Pamela Edwards, to whom Hannay’s cuffed and forms an antagonistic love-affair with. Indeed all three women are attracted. Even the spy prefers bed, certainly to a knife in her back – and that in itself marks a tragic-comic consummation of her desires: ‘Oh Richard Hannay’.

Barlow’s original has three men and one woman. Again Atkinson’s neatly re-gendered one role and allowed Suzanne Heritage (Clown 1) the plum of fiendish arch-villain Professor Jordan, as well as one half of a male lingerie seller (with Chris Berry), policeman, one of the two thugs Jordan dispatches on chases, the kind Highlands hotel proprietress shielding as she thinks a runaway couple,  and so on. Heritage enjoys the gamut of warmth to ice-axe and has it all.

But it’s Jordan where Heritage can shine in darkness visible. Heritage revels in the villainous double-voice, and Barlow’s  own addition, the sheer camp of fascist speeches and the ‘I thought briefly you might be one of us’ moments. And she’s great cocking a gun.

Chris Berry, apart from put-upon milkman, truculent lingerie seller (that double-act with Heritage is a highlight, with real samples) and elegantly Scottish Procurator Fiscal – indeed he’s splendid in establishment roles – is also the thug who chases Hannay out of the rear window (Hitchcock jokes abound) and as McTyte a fearsome mean old crofter – with another Scottish accent to boot. He’s also the complacent husband of Jordan, dancing a tango with her as she’s just disposed of Hannay, as she thinks. And the almost silent hotel proprietor silenced by his warm-hearted wife (Heritage again).

Peter Jukes as Clown 3 also takes on a number of roles, thug and five others. But chief of these has to be Mr Memory with his virtuoso performance of a formula at the end. His inflecting the original Mr Memory on screen is perfect, though his stage presence is a few degrees more showman which enhances his truth. His two performances in that role frame the very vaudevillian nature of Hitch’s and Barlow’s world.

This is an immaculately-rendered revival, with enhancements. Movement director Edd Berridge and choreographer Patti Griffiths between them produce ballets of physical comedy turned on a sixpence, with some exquisite pratfalls. The most memorable is taking Hitchcock’s Madeleine Caroll (opposite Robert Donat) as Pamela Edwards removing her stockings with some help from Hannay, given their cuffing, into a ballet of raised leg and Hannay having to reach down over Edwards to hook off the wet stocking from her ankle. It’s a comic delight, exaggerated and provocative, a moment of pure physical theatre. Had he been able in 1935, Hitchcock would have tried it. He was biting at censorship as it was.

The set is deceptively simple. Tom Williams doesn’t just design and with others construct and paint the small flanges protruding from the wings like flying buttresses, with little icons of the play’s themes studded over them. Or indeed the simple black boxes used for cars or anything else, even an office desk. That’s in keeping with Barlow. It’s the video design from a black-and-white blow-up of Portland Place in the 1930s, the backdrop of a train window, including the stop to Edinburgh, Forth Bridge, moving clouds as a plane tries machine-gunning Hannay and has a mishap,  a croft, a view from it, an elegant library and a supremely elegant view from the procurator fiscal’s office. And the Palladium in lights, twice. There’s often a blue-out for silhouette work. Where two spies say stand patiently holding a frame, and get shuttered for their pains.

Beverley Grover’s lighting and sound design has over a hundred cues and Glenys Harries-Rees executes these crisply: the fluidity of storytelling with its joke eddies never seems consciously spotlit. It’s an operation working with video, and a resident soundtrack used on all the chases: Charles Williams’ ‘Devil’s Galop’ used in the early 1950s Dick Barton radio spy series. We even get voiceovers where the male announcer begins to melt disclosing Hannay’s charms.

Keane’s Hannay has to dominate and he does. His voice recalls Donat’s but also the clipped upper-middle class privilege of popular heroes of the time. Keane does this as well or better than any production I saw at the Criterion or touring. His physicality blades into view and out of it, on a razor so to speak of exaggeration and braggadocio. He gets the comedic edge of ‘a whole flock of detectives’ where Humphries’ Edwards is amused despite being cuffed to a dangerous murderer. As Hannay later reminds her – which version of him does she want to believe, cuffed and clambering on the glen?

Humphries invests three roles with very different qualities. As Annabella Schmidt she’s also mysterious, deadly serious and slinky foreign seductress, rivalling Heritage’s Jordan for accent, sexually baffled that Hannay won’t spend the night with her and as we’ve seen very good in her knifed scena, orgasmic and operatic in its dying fall.

As Margaret McTyte Edwards makes an appealing case for this Glasgow-born woman, barely twenty, who hungers for bright lights and to hear of foreign travel. Her palpable attraction (nicely rounded off) offsets the bleakness of what brought her to an ancient crofter whom Hannay first thinks is her father. Poverty? We never learn. Edwards invests her with warmth decision and pathos.

Finally as Pamela Edwards Humphries – clearly an upper-class Scot with connections as we find – revels in the initial hauteur in the train and later in the hustings meeting. Her mix of accusatory outrage and despite herself falling for Hannay’s humour is robust and funny. As is her hesitant tenderness blasted by Hannay’s fury at her omitting to tell him the villains are gone. It’s Edwards who first spots the ‘policemen’ are taking the wrong road.

It’s necessarily Keane who crowns this, has most to do, including a hustings speech for ‘McCrocodile’ and a way of almost but never really guying either Buchan text or Hitchcock rewrite. We believe his man of action, snappy, brusque in manner, easily bored. One wonders when he’ll be drawn out again (well in Buchan there’s five Hannay novels). And of course this end is – you’ll love it.

Most of all the crack ensemble fit onto a re-imagined tiny space and render a different, intimate yet frenzied ballet. The videos notch up a world from Barlow’s built-in pseudo-amateurisms, which can pall. I prefer this crisper fluent projection. But Atkinson and his team never swerve from Barlow’s own hommage, itself careful not to guy Hitchcock or Buchan.

It’s a recalibrated masterpiece and another outstanding production. That might sound repetitive but BLT are consistently the finest little theatre in the area. Still, I wouldn’t fly or aim machine-guns in it. In that case you might have a fall.