In a society full of re-makes and adaptations, the theatrical adaptation of Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps is not impressive because it is an adaptation from film to theatrical performance. For whilst it is true that the most commonly known across media adaptations are from book to film and usually result in the disappointed words of fans saying, “The book was better,” it isn’t always the case. (Not just in the type of adaptation, but in the quality as well.) In fact, there are many cross media adaptations that adapt books to live action musicals (e.g. Phantom of the Opera, Cats and Wicked) and The 39 Steps certainly isn’t the first film to be adapted for live action performance either (Spamalot and Mary Poppins immediately come to mind).
That being said, however, does not make the theatrical adaptation of Alfred Hitchcock’s 39 Steps any less remarkable. Indeed, it is made even more remarkable in that even though adaptations from movie to theatre or book to theatre are becoming quite common, it still takes a certain skill to make it successful. What is even more remarkable is that upon further examination one comes to realize that the theatrical production of The 39 Steps is an adaptation of an adaptation for Alfred Hitchcock’s film itself was an adaptation from the book, The Thirty-Nine Steps, by John Buchan. But even further still is Patrick Barlow’s ability to not only create a cross media adaptation that changes the genre from suspense to comedy, but that he does so quite successfully in a way that audiences adore it.
The 39 Steps is set apart from all of my aforementioned adaptations in that it is the only one (that I know of) that changes the genre whilst sticking so truly to the plot of the original inspiration (in this case, Alfred Hitchcock’s film). The only adaptation that comes even close is Wicked in that the book by Gregory Maguire is much more serious with darker themes and political undertones, where the musical is more light-hearted and tends to focus more on the relationship between Elphaba and Glinda and is at some points even funny.
The 39 Steps far surpasses any attempts Wicked might have made to lighten the genre. The key element that makes such a feat possible is the fact that there are only four actors who between each of them play 139 roles. The way they achieve this almost lends an improv vibe where actors are switching hats whenever they say lines by different characters. At one point one of the actors is halfway wearing a coat and is turning to each side while rapidly switching hats as he has a conversation with himself. Another element that helps the theatrical version be perceived as a comedy is the pacing. In the movie, the pacing is slow with tense eerie music and even tenser silences to portray to the audience how serious a situation Richard Hannay is in, but the play has a rapid, quick step pace that forces the actors to keep moving and makes for entertaining costume changes as they all have so many roles. Indeed, they change roles so swiftly and skillfully that the audience is forced to admire them for it. The first time we witness this is when Annabella Schmidt is telling Hannay that there are spies outside of his window and every time he goes to look, the two other actors (who play most of the roles) have to carry a light pole to the side of the stage and stand there menacingly (with music of course) before running off again as soon as he stops looking. Of course then, Hannay has to look several times and speed up the act each time so that the other actors have to move more quickly to get in place. (This is done two times and then on the third time Hannay changes his mind so they have to rush back off stage again.) This theme of fast pace perpetual movement is kept throughout the entire performance so that not only is it developing in the audience and appreciation of their skill, but the tempo is also pushing the mood of the audience forward creating an urgent feeling that is imitating Hannay’s own urgency.
The second key feature of the comedic structure of the play is the direct parodies they make of scenes in the film. They purposefully follow Hitchcock’s film scene for scene and practically verbatim, but with gross exaggeration. The first obvious difference is that the actors have fun with each character’s accent. In the movie the characters all have different accents (German, Scottish, English, etc.) and the actors in the play take that and over exaggerate it to such a comedic effect you as the spectator can’t help but laugh. This is particularly evident when the female spy Annabella Schmidt is trying to pronounce the name of a certain town in Scotland and Hannay keeps asking her to repeat it and then he too says it so over pronounced that you can’t understand what city they are actually talking about. Another great difference is the over exaggeration of serious scenes such as death scene of Annabella Schmidt who, in the film gets stabbed in the back with a knife and falls to the floor telling Hannay that he is next. In the play she goes into these wild death throes collapsing over the sofa where Hannay is sitting gasping and flailing about for minutes until she finally goes still with Hannay trapped beneath her. Hannay then makes a huge scene of trying to get out from under her without having to touch her body that he eventually slinks out from the bottom of the chair. He then is trying to pull a clue from her dead grasping clutches and decides to rotate the knife in her back as if it were a switch to make her drop the papers (and of course she does).
The third and maybe most crucial part of the theatrical performance is the actors’ creative use of body language and props to convey motion and scenery on an otherwise mostly bear stage. There are not all that many props in each scene, but the actors do a fantastic job getting the audience to believe in each scene through the use of their bodies and what little props they do have. When it is supposed to be windy out (whether it’s just weather or because they are on a speeding train) all the actors will flap their coats or dress while a wind sound effect plays. This works exceptionally well in the train scene for they all bump and rock back and forth as if they are on a bumpy train ride to Edinburgh. They do this for the car scenes as well. There may be only four chairs and a steering wheel with the actors bouncing and swaying back and forth as if on a bumpy back road, but they complement their movements so well to coincide with the sound effects that one can’t help but see that they are obviously on the road. Yes, the movements themselves are funny (especially whenever someone slams on the breaks), but it is the ingenious way the actors cleverly use everything around them (including themselves!) that fills the audience with delighted laughter. So even though all of their movements are over the top, it is necessary in that it creates a space on stage that the audience can buy into and believe.
My favorite part of the show however, is their open acknowledgement to the fact that they are poking fun at Hitchcock’s film in a loving manner. They even give a jaunty tip of their hat to him by making direct references to other movies. For example, the female lead refuses to climb up a later because it gives her *dramatic pause with hand to the forehead* Vertigo. And at one point she is taking a shower and they make a reference to Psycho (complete with music).
Overall, The 39 Steps is a clever, exhilarating theatrical adaptation of a film adaptation of a book. Well done I say!