The 39 Steps: A Review

After seeing the review I did for Writer’s Block Magazine of their 2018 performance of The Importance of Being Earnest, the lovely people of the Queen’s English Theatre Company invited me to their new production: The 39 Steps, which was put together in a collaboration with West End actress Loveday Smith under the name QE2. They performed it tonight, and they will also perform it tomorrow, the 7th of December, at 15:00 and 20:00 and Sunday the 8th at 15:00 and 20:00, all in Amsterdam.

Originally, of course, The Thirty-Nine Steps was a 1915 adventure novel by John Buchan. Then, famously, it was made into a movie by Alfred Hitchcock in 1935, and a number of other adaptations for the big and small screen followed, as well as a theatre adaptation first created by Simon Corble and Nobby Dimon (can you imagine being named Nobby?) and then adapted by Patrick Barlow in 2005.

I did read the novel once upon a time, but I barely remember it. I also once saw the play performed in London’s West End while I was in high school, but that, too, has faded from memory. What I do remember, however, is the funny, energetic, innovative Oscar Wilde adaptation the Queen’s English Theatre Company (QETC) put on last year. So I was excited to see what they’d do with The 39 Steps, and I was not disappointed.

A photo I took during intermission

The 39 Steps is designed to be played by four actors, but the play features more than 100 different characters and takes about two hours. As you can imagine, this results in a whirlwind of fast-paced switches in character and wardrobe, smoothly yet amusingly acted out by the talented people of QE2.

The use of props and sound effects is equally clever. At times, actors and technicians interact to create an almost postmodern and highly amusing clash of form and content. While there are not many props and set pieces, this scarcity is played for laughs and the versatility of props is creatively exploited; a set of ladders can function as a mountain range, a bridge, a bed or a billboard, depending on the situation.

Audience members who are well-versed in the ouevre of Alfred Hitchcock will delight in the many subtle and not-so-subtle references to Hitchcock films this production has to offer. I myself counted almost a dozen, but there are undoubtedly many more that I missed.

For the first twenty minutes or so, I sat around wondering whether QE2’s adaptation of The 39 Steps would have a political message, like I think their production of The Importance of Being Earnest did last year. After that I was too swept away by the adventure and laughing too much to care. But I do think there is, at the very least, an opinion behind this play. By lightly parodying Englishness in the character of Richard Hannay and his concern for Great Britain’s national security, by contrasting his Englishness with the stereotypical Scottishness of the characters in the Highlands, the play parodies and therefore questions feelings of national belonging in a way that is especially poignant in the age of Brexit.

Actors Graham Garner and Loveday Smith in the roles of Richard Hannay and Annabella Schmidt

Although I caught myself, now and again, annoyed with the man-woman dynamic in the play, QE2 successfully overacts and exaggerates this dynamic. While, on the one hand, this allowed me to be swept away by the romantic subplot that every old-fashioned adventure needs, I could nonetheless sense that the old world being portrayed, a world where high-heeled women are ordered around by strange men they end up marrying, is indeed in the past. The production uses humour to carefully balance the era of John Buchan with our own. While faithfully reproducing the cultural moment of the 1910’s, the gentle parody enables the production to reflect on the disjunctions between then and now.

Overall, they put together a highly entertaining, thoughtful, balanced production of The 39 Steps that’s suitable for everyone age 8 upwards. I would highly recommend you take a few hours out of your weekend to go see this show. Tickets are still available here.

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