Anyone lured to the Criterion by hopes of seeing a dashing tale of British pluck and derring-do in the form of John Buchan’s The 39 Steps will be baffled and disappointed. Based less on Buchan’s novel than on Hitchcock’s film, this production takes a cheerily mocking swipe at the antics of the square-jawed hero Richard Hannay as he battles dastardly foreign agents, attempts to converse with Scottish yokels, and remains the perfect gentleman even whilst handcuffed to the heroine. The fact that it can now boast of being the longest-running comedy currently in the West End suggests that it taps pretty successfully into a tradition as firmly British as Hannay himself: a need to mock the idea of hearty “Britishness”, even as we celebrate it at one remove.
The stagecraft which lets a four-person cast romp through trains, city streets, bridges and the Scottish moors is a pleasure in itself. There’s a devoted and austere silliness about the spies who trundle onto the edge of the stage carrying their own lamppost to lurk beneath whenever Hannay looks out of the window, or the shadow-puppets of bi-planes which chase our hero across the glen. Though I missed a couple of effects which I’m sure were in the show when I saw it on the pre-West End tour a few years ago. If you’re going to rewatch it, be warned that The Bit With The Dog is no longer in the show, nor is That Thing With The Ladder and the Flying Helmet, presumably casualties of translating the show to a small stage like the Criterion.
The show’s ad-hoc, physical, carry-your-own-scenery style of performance might have suited Hannay. Like other heroes of the period (Agatha Christie’s Major Despard springs to mind) he was the sort of tweed-clad adventurer who could enjoy the bright lights and comforts of the city for a while, but could never approve of them. So it seems apt that the Criterion, in the centre of a theatre district full of musicals and film stars, is holding its own with a piece of brilliant, energetic theatre which manages to both enjoy and mock its hero’s exploits and its own status as a “West End show”.
This article first appeared in California Literary Review, August 2011