On 12 and 13 February, Mermaids brought The 39 Steps to the Byre Theatre, humbly presented on the programme as “Polsue and Hope’s production of Patrick Barlow’s adaptation of Alfred Hitchcock’s subtle tweaking of John Buchan’s shocker.” The programme also informed me that I had been beaten to the review, with quotations from critics such as I. M. Parshall who pronounced that “the theatrical scene in St Andrews has not been this hot since John Knox.” All this told me that the play I was about to see would have a sense of humour, but nothing could have prepared me for the delightful madness that followed.
Patrick Barlow’s adaptation of The 39 Steps is a loving parody of the 1930s spy thriller and gets around any budgetary or practical obstacles by having two of the actors, aptly cast as the “clowns”, play every single minor character and hastily construct the set before our eyes. The result is both hilarious and ingenious as four chairs, two boxes and a door can become a cottage, a mansion and a train, and a scene between four characters can be achieved by two men and a lot of hats.
Ed Polsue’s task in directing this must have been no easy job, but he pulled off the chaos of the play seamlessly. It quickly became apparent watching the performances that the illusion of haphazardness must have required absolute precision. In one scene, two characters take a comically long journey through a series of rooms, simply pulling the same door round with them and stepping through it over and over. The joke was meticulously choreographed with impeccable comedic timing.
At the centre of this tale of intrigue is Daniel Jonusas as our incorrigible hero Richard Hannay. Jonusas’ impression of the 1930s gentleman adventurer was so uncanny he appeared 10 years older through sheer charisma. Jonusas played the straight man to all the insanity around him, charming the audience with his exasperation at the silliness and his grin whenever the voiceover described him as good looking. Opposite him was our female lead, Alexandra Upton as both mysterious spy Anabella and unlikely love interest Pamela. The chemistry between the couple in the latter half, as they were handcuffed together and forced on the run, was a highlight of the show. Upton had the presence of an actress from Hollywood’s Golden Age and the razor-sharp bickering between them felt straight out of a classic screwball comedy. When Upton utters the delicious line “I want you to know I really hate you”, it’s with complete conviction, yet it is that same moment that you know for sure they will fall for each other in the end.
The other duo of the piece was Harrison Roberts and Louis Wilson, playing everyone from a pair of henchmen to elderly Scottish couple the McGarrigles. There was a thrill in watching them transform completely, not just through their voice but through movement as well. Their boundless energy as they rushed around the stage kept the play alive and their ridiculous accents made even the simplest of lines a joy. Their interactions with the props and the set were ingenious, and I found myself caught between laughing or applauding. Roberts’ turn as an old man trying to carry three chairs across the stage was, without exaggeration, a triumph of physical comedy. Watching him swing them around precariously without ever dropping one was like watching a master magician at work.
Although a rather minor role Charlie Robertson’s Margaret should not be overlooked, as she communicated everything we needed to know about her character in minutes. Amidst all the hilarity, Robertson injects a surprising amount of heart into her brief episode as the trapped farmer’s wife longing for the big city. There is no time to stop however, and Richard must leave Margaret behind for more madcap adventures.
As for the technical aspects, every detail was carefully chosen to evoke the feel of an old-fashioned adventure film. The stage-hands were dressed in butler’s coat-tails and white gloves, meaning their presence did nothing to detract from the moment. In a particularly clever touch, the spotlight shrank into nothing at the end of a scene, mimicking the old-fashioned cinematic technique of ending the scene with a black circle closing in on the frame. The overwhelming sense from The 39 Steps was that the crew cared, and it showed.
Any weaknesses in the production were minor next to its successes. Sitting up at the back of the Byre, it was difficult on occasion to hear the actors over the recorded sound effects and music. Being opening night also meant there were one or two instances where it felt as if the cast had not quite worked out how to pace their lines to best land the jokes. However, the actors were clearly having so much fun that the goodwill they built with the audience was unassailable. By the time the play ended the atmosphere in the theatre was one of pure joy.
Polsue and Hope’s production presented an energetic and playful kind of theatre. It understood that the best way to bring an action-packed spy thriller to the stage was by leaning into all the silliness that the medium can bring. Mermaids’ The 39 Steps recognises that if theatre is just people in fancy dress doing silly voices, then why not make it funny? And it succeeds with style.