Tuesday, May 15, 2007

The 39 Steps on stage

The 39 Steps has been a novel, three movies and now, as winner of a Laurence Olivier Award for best new comedy, a farce.

The current production, at London's Criterion Theatre, offers clever staging, deft character and costume changes on the fly from the cast of four, and a lead actor whose mustache is strikingly similar to Robert Donat's in Alfred Hitchcock's great 1935 film version.

It also offers a corpse that keeps waving one of its arms, Scottish and other accents milked for laughs, gay and straight sexual winking and nudging, and an old man running around in boxer shorts. What it does not offer is any but the slightest hint of the suspense that marked either John Buchan's 1915 novel or Hitchcock's very different movie. (I haven't seen either the 1959 or the 1978 movie versions.)

The show, crafted with apparent affection from the important bits of the Hitchcock, turns those bits into a long Benny Hill sketch. The mix works, to judge from the explosive horselaughs and deep, rich and rasping snorts of merriment from the two men who sat right behind me. But it has little to do with crime fiction despite the influential novel and superb movie from which it borrows its name.
An essay in the play's program proposes Buchan's hero, Richard Hannay, as one of the most enduring and influential heroes from the Golden Age of the thriller. Hannay, according to the article, "formed the blueprint for a whole gallery of similar characters," including Bulldog Drummond, the Saint, and, as the type mutated, James Bond, Len Deighton's unnamed hero and John Le Carre's disillusioned protagonists.

It's a stimulating article that may interest readers of my recent comment about the most influential crime writer ever.

© Peter Rozovsky 2007

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

39 steps as farce - now that I would like to see!

Didn't Erskine Childer's Riddle of the Sands predate 39 steps?

May 17, 2007  
Blogger Uriah Robinson said...

Yes, Erskine Childer's The Riddle of the Sands was written in 1903, while Buchan's 39 steps dates from 1915.
Erskine Childers was execeuted by the new Irish Free State authorities during the Irish civil War in 1922.

May 17, 2007  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thank for the question, Laura, and for the answer, Uriah. I'd have been stumped.

Re The 39 Steps as knockabout farce, another current London production is The Hound of the Baskervilles. The blurbs refer to the production as a hilarious comedy. It appears that turning old crime stories into comedies is a current rage. Perhaps London theatregoers will be splitting their sides laughing at The Telltale Heart one of these seasons.

May 18, 2007  
Blogger Uriah Robinson said...

I see you have resorted to cricket terminology, Peter, with "I'd have been stumped"
Reading a lot of Aussie authors such as Peter Temple can cause this, or you have had some lessons in the ancient game.
I read today that the first international cricket game was in 1844 between the USA and Canada! I would have been stumped,caught, run out, bowled and lbw if I had been questioned about that one.

May 20, 2007  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Enlightenment comes from unexpected places. To be stumped is such a common expression in North American speech that I had never stopped to speculate about its possible origin until now.

I have been reading about the ancient game, as it happens. Young Master Harris seems to have made an admirable show for Glamorgan. One of the matches I read about was taking place in Hove, and I had just been in Brighton! Of course, rain likely washed out the cricket the day I was there. Another of the matches was being played in Exeter, I believe.

May 20, 2007  

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