Before last night, I didn't know much about The 39 Steps. Now, having read the programme, I can tell you that it's based on a 1915 novel by a journalist/politician/diplomat turned author called John Buchan, which was subsequently heavily edited and adapted for the big screen by Alfred Hitchcock.
I can also tell you that this particular adaptation by Patrick Barlow involves four actors playing 130 parts in 100 minutes. For someone who usually finds even the very best productions 'a bit long' this sounded great.
And really, it was. This show is a perfect example of how physical comedy – done right – is the funniest, quickest and cleverest around. There was little gaudy slapstick here, it was much more subtle and intelligent than that – hats wibbled in the wind when an imaginary train window was opened, a car journey was brought to life with a few old chairs and some synchronised bouncing. Yes, there was much switching of coats and hats but rarely did it descend from the level of perfect farce.
Richard Ede played the leading man, Richard Hannay, with echoes of Bertie Wooster, but a lot more good sense. The too-numerous-to-count parts which come under the umbrella of 'Man 1' and 'Man 2' were expertly managed by Andrew Hodges and Rob Whitcomb – some of the very best scenes were those that allowed the pair of them to interact with each other, and indeed themselves (if you follow me).
For a fast-paced show (which this has to be, to fit double-crossing secret agents, murder and numerous escapes from the dastardly clutches of the villain into such a short running time) this production is also not afraid to slow down. The scene in the Scottish boarding house where Hannay and Pamela (Olivia Greene) are forced by circumstance (and a pair of handcuffs) to spend a night in each other’s company is among the best in the production.
The staging is simple and intelligent – a few packing cases, an arm chair and a freestanding doorway do most of the work (although special mention must be made of the lamp post). When the 100 minutes are up, I decide there’s only one thing wrong with this show. I wish it was a bit longer.
The 39 Steps is at Theatre Royal until Saturday 2 July 2016.