I first saw this play about six years ago, and when I was offered a pair of tickets last week I realised I had forgotten almost everything about it, which is something I often do with light comedy. It’s not that I don’t enjoy it; just that the memories of it seem to fade, probably because there is no connection with any kind of real emotion, so there’s nothing for it to get snagged on in my brain. For example, I know I enjoyed Graham Linehan’s adaptation of The Ladykillers, but by the time I tried to write about it a few days after seeing it I realised most of it had already faded from my mind. (Although there was a really good bit where Peter Capaldi, playing Alec Guinness, threw a dead body out of a window. It was funnier than it sounds.)
Part of the problem with The Ladykillers was that I was already fairly well-acquainted with both the Ealing original and the Coen brothers’ remake, so The 39 Steps already has the advantage because I have never read the book or seen any of the (four!) film versions. Which means I can confidently assert that this version of The 39 Steps is absolutely the silliest thing I’ve ever seen on the West End stage, which is not to say anything against it. As you will know if you’ve read any of the publicity, the whole thing is done with four actors; one of whom plays the lead, with the others changing accents and costumes in super-quick time (sometimes on stage) to play all of the rest of the characters. What you might not know, and I didn’t until the beloved mentioned it, is that it uses more or less exactly the story and dialogue of the Hitchcock film, but hammed up into a festival of ridiculousness that you’d have to be a very harsh person not to enjoy.
The physical comedy, and minimal but ingenious staging, is at the heart of what makes the play work as a farce rather than a thriller – and the thriller’s plot is so preposterous that it probably works better when you don’t have to inspect its logic too closely and can just enjoy the laughs. The actors all throw themselves into the silliness with gusto (as, incidentally, do most of the audience: it is one of those plays where you have to grit your teeth and ignore the hooting overlaughters).
Another excellent reason to go is the beautiful interior of the Criterion Theatre. The decor looks genuinely 1930s (I have no idea whether or not it is), and the crowning glory is a bar decorated with backlit stained glass, whose unexpected opulence and utter emptiness, thanks to its being hidden away around a corner you wouldn’t know was there, make it look exactly like a set from The Shining. So if the hooting overlaughers really get to you, you know where to escape to.