39 Steps by Patrick Barlow

It’s fitting that, given how this is the centenary of its original publication by Edinburgh-based publisher Blackwood’s, that at least one version of John Buchan’s classic thriller The Thirty-Nine Steps has made it onto this year’s Fringe. But be warned; while clearly based on Patrick Barlow’s hit West End reimagining of the story (which, frankly, owes more to Alfred Hitchcock’s cinematic rewrite than Buchan’s original novel), this particular 39 Steps is presented at a frenetic pace by Little Theatre from Bucharest, Romania, and you’ll be spending at least part of your time reading the English language surtitles above the cast’s heads.

While neither an overt critique of the film nor original novel, these hinted-at relationships at least offer a limited emotional aspect among all the comedic thriller tomfoolery that The Thirty-Nine Steps now seems to be remembered for.

This can be somewhat distracting, not least for their frequent errors – while “the Scottish swamps” is arguably a deliberately humorous mistranslation, other are no more than typing errors – “hoarse” rather than “horse”, for example. Also, the fact that – at least during this early performance – the surtitles were not always in sync with the actors on stage, didn’t help the already tenuous hold of the story being presented on stage. For what we’re watching is supposedly the filming of a version of The Thirty-Nine Steps, although the highly stressed director (Bogdan Talasman) can’t be considered a Hitchcock, beyond the fact that the small scale of his cast necessitates him playing one of the characters later on in the show, reading his lines of cue-cards.

There’s a genuine physicality in many of the performances, presumably to help compensate for the language barrier: in particular Stefan Lupu (who plays the heroic, man-on-the-run Richard Hannay) frequently throws himself about the floor in OTT contortions, while the other four actors on stage focus on overt physical comedy. It all comes across – deliberately, of course – as loud but low rent, although there are still the occasional “home made” props which surprise because of their scale. That said, there’s no recreation of the Forth Bridge escape scene here – ironically enough, making this presentation of the story a tad closer to Buchan’s original!

If the plot is sped through even quicker than in the 1935 film, what lingers is the potentially much more interesting relationships between the actors on this supposed sound-stage. Lupe’s somewhat vain leading man is clearly the lust object for the young actress (Claudia Prec), which doesn’t help his existing relationship with the older leading lady (Andreea Grāmosteanu). Also, there’s the much put-upon supporting actor (Viorel Cojanu) who clearly has little love for the alleged “star” of the movie. While neither an overt critique of the film nor original novel, these hinted-at relationships at least offer a limited emotional aspect among all the comedic thriller tomfoolery that The Thirty-Nine Steps now seems to be remembered for. 

Reviews by Paul F Cockburn

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The Blurb

...trains, planes, car chasing... all in front of your eyes in a suspense thriller and a burlesque comedy about the world behind the movie screen... just 39 steps to get there... After a novel by John Buchan and the film of Alfred Hitchcock’s 39 Steps, an original concept of Simon Corble and Nobby Dimon, recreated on stage by Patrick Barlow. An inventive and gripping comedy features actors playing 65 roles in 75 minutes.Performed in Romanian with English surtitles.

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