Tuesday, 9 October 2007

REVIEW: "The 39 Steps"

(I was going to hold this until after class, but it came in about 200 words short, so I'll have to use one of my others.)

Sometimes, all a theatregoer wants is a pleasant evening. No overwhelming amazements or atrocities, just a night of smiles and simplicity. For those occasions, The 39 Steps, currently playing at the Critereon, will undoubtedly satisfy such desires.

Based on the novel and subsequent Hitchcock movie of the same name, The 39 Steps presents a man's flirtation with espionage in 1935 after meeting an attractive young lady at a pallid West End entertainment. Our hero, Richard Hannay (played by Mr. Robert Portal), takes said lady home, she gets murdered, he gets blamed and goes up to Scotland to track down the mysterious organisation responsible.

While the story sounds like serious fare (and indeed it originally was), Patrick Barlow's adaptation renders it with a comedic, rather than psychological touch. Relying upon the traditions of mild-mannered farce, all of the expected cliches are present, with Scottish and German accents used to obscure simple words, non-violent slapstick, silly place names, etc. While this sort of fare was commonplace and reviled by critics in the 1950s, modern audiences view it as quaint material deserving of an Olivier and a New York transfer. How appropriate, then, that it is housed in the Criterion, a beautifully traditional venue full of charm and historical curiosity, and one where the cast can indulge the rare West End occurrence of performing free without microphones.

All of the side characters (claimed as 150 by the adverts, though realistically much lower) are played by Mssrs. Jimmy Chisholm and Simon Gregor, the latter spending much of his stage time in drag. The three main female characters, played by Ms. Rachel Pickup, are all hard-boiled bombshells ready to supply us with predictable plot-advancing romance. While the cast slip in and out of their roles at ease (sometimes even mid-sentence), manipulate an overwhelming number of set dressing and props, and exude professionalism, there was a lack of excitement surrounding the performance I saw, as if everybody was merely running the lines while waiting for a new job to come along.

This isn't to say that the play is bad. It's perfectly enjoyable, and I was never bored during the evening. The jokes are wide enough to be appreciated by those with no knowledge of Hitchcock's film (though a familiarity, even reading the Wikipedia entry helps), and the pacing never falters over the 105 minute runtime, though the presence of an interval is questionable. Clearly the producers are trying to offset thankfully lower than average ticket prices (£42.50 top) with ice cream sales, and the cheerful audience members I saw were more than happy to assist. At the risk of upsetting local readers, it's all so stereotypically English: middle-class friendly, inoffensive, and capable of delivering lots of smirks, but few large laughs.

Where: Criterion Theatre
When: Open run, most nights at 8PM.
Cost: £10-£42.50
Concessions: £12 tickets for the usual groups, available 60 min. prior to curtain for same day only.
RZ unofficial "worth paying": £10. It's fun, but forgettable. Good if mum's in town and you want something safe with local flavour to take her to. Because the theatre is underground, there are an unusually large number of restricted view seats due to support pillars. Check Theatre Monkey for details.
RZ other notes: I wish I'd taken notes during this one. Normally I don't, as I find it distracts me from the show and tips my opinion towards the negative, but I couldn't recall many details while doing the writeup despite having a big grin on my face and finding the entire show thoroughly pleasant...just not impressively so. The real gem for the evening, in my opinion, was walking around the Criterion, which is a beautiful Victorian theatre with lovely lobby areas, drawings of historical men in evening dress on the walls, and restrooms with broken hand driers.

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