When John Buchan wrote his magnificent adventure story “The 39 Steps” in 1915 it would have taken some persuasion to make him believe it would have theatre audiences laughing in the aisles some 99 years later!
Certainly the great Alfred Hitchcock who made it into a brilliant 1935 thriller would not have seen the funny side.
But, decades later, playwrights Simon Corble and Nobby Dimon came up with the concept of turning the epic story into a one-hour plus condensed version with just four actors. In 2005 comedy actor and playwright Patrick Barlow turned it into a stage comedy.
Then Burnley’s Garrick Theatre Group went one step further and made it their own, with hilarious results being played out at Nelson’s ACE Centre this week.
The Garrick chose the perfect cast and an inspired director and production team to pull it off and it is one of those shows you just want to go and see again. It sounds dubious, but to turn a wartime spy mystery into a modern day laugh-out-loud comedy actually works wonderfully well.
So anyone in the audience who may have gone along expecting to see the serious version on Wednesday’s opening night, would have immediately realised they were at the wrong production.
For, from the second the lights went down and an over-dramatised BBC-type voice told us to switch off any mechanical telecommunication equipment (ie mobile phones), you knew this was comedy - not serious drama.
From start to finish the Garrick gave us great character acting along with downright daftness. And the result was a very cleverly put together production - not just down to the excellent acting, but to the Garrick technical team who must have loved every moment of this just as the audience did.
It is a production where sound and stage effects, lighting and props are used brilliantly to tell the story. At times you barely needed a cast at all – especially the scenes in the Scottish mountains where the hero of the tale, Richard Hannay, is being hunted.
Hannay was played by Steve Cooke who was so tongue in cheek he sent up his character magnificently. He was droll, witty, waggish and facetious as he found himself entangled in a spy mystery with leading lady (the only lady) Andrea Cawley deliciously depicting the three female parts, the femme fatale, the Scottish crofter’s wife who yearns for the bright lights and then the girl who finally helps him solve the mystery of the “39 Steps”.
Then we have every other person in the story portrayed by just two actors, Kevin Riley and James Bateman. They were just so funny as they played so many parts I literally lost count.
The story begins with Bateman’s brilliant portrayal of “Mr Memory” with Kevin Riley his partner. Then the pair become spies, train guards, policemen, businessmen on a train, crofters, hoteliers, women.... and the rest, as the story unfolds. The scene on the train to Scotland when they changed from guards to police to businessmen all in one scene, was total tomfoolery. These two were outstanding and deserve every accolade for this this night of pure fun and entertainment.
And to director John Cummings and the stage team led by Howard Rogers and Robert Ashcroft, what a triumph of invention and technical mastery. The train scene, the interpretation of the Forth Bridge, the mountain scene, to name just a few - hilarious.
Playwright Patrick Barlow said he is not interested in offensive or edgy comedy - just cheering people up. With his super script and a great Garrick team, he certainly succeeded.
Burnley Garrick Theatre, “The 39 Steps”, Nelson ACE Centre, until Saturday May 17th 2014.