The 39 Steps by John Buchan adapted by Patrick Barlow

The 39 Steps is a timeless spy story written by John Buchan in 1915: it’s the forerunner to the “man on the run” genre that is with us to this day. Alfred Hitchcock turned the 39 steps into a famous film in 1935 and the BBC last broadcast it in 2008.

Slightly at a loose end, Richard Hannay, our protagonist, aged 37 with, I am told, a very fetching moustache, finds himself at the theatre.  He is inadvertently drawn into a web of spies by a member of the audience who seeks shelter in his flat. He becomes a target for the Germans because they think he holds sensitive information about the Luftwaffe.

Philip Keane offers us a stirling and very natural performance as he sprints through a Scottish moor, seduces a woman on a train to hide from the Police and addresses a political rally. He is always falling in love and always on the run.

His love interest in three different guises is Lou Humphries. From the original spy to a young woman trapped with a bad tempered man in a Scottish croft, many of the characters are humorous caricatures.

Patrick Barlow is responsible for this tongue-in-cheek adaptation of the adventure story that may otherwise, appear quite dated. I laughed through every scene of this play.

Special mention must be given to Suzanne Heritage who among other roles, plays the arch villain, Professor Jordan. After a fair amount of hype and a reputation which precedes her, we eventually meet the Professor in a remote part of Scotland. Like all good spies, she has embedded herself in her community.

It’s up to Richard Hannay to prove her villainous intent and his innocence. The odds are stacked against him. His photograph is on the front page of every paper and his love interest, Pamela Edwards proves a prickly target.

You can see why Hitchcock needed a big cast for the 39 steps. There are three clowns who between them portray 30 different characters from paper boys to mock detectives and actors. The play is action packed with 33 scenes masterfully captured by a cast of five.

Direction was excellent and complex. The actors brought the props on and off themselves and rearranged a sparse set scene by scene – remember there were 33 of them.

For a small theatre company, I think this play is a triumph. It’s very funny, makes great use of irony, flashing blue lights to symbolise the Police and a digital screen acting as the main set. The production was innovative and fresh.

If you can get to the Brighton Little Theatre this week, go. It’s a small theatre of 75, ventilated where possible, with a charming bar. You won’t regret seeing this very humorous adaptation of the 39 steps.

***** Five stars