Triumphant return to Rugby Theatre for madcap take on The 39 Steps

The 39 Steps, Rugby Theatre. Until Saturday, November 19

The energetic cast of four... Katie-Anne Ray, Dave Crossfield as Richard Hannay, Malcolm Stewart and Dean Mills. As you can tell, they're on a moving train. Photo: Martin Pulley.
The energetic cast of four... Katie-Anne Ray, Dave Crossfield as Richard Hannay, Malcolm Stewart and Dean Mills. As you can tell, they're on a moving train. Photo: Martin Pulley.

Confession time. I first saw the Hitchcock take on The 39 Steps as a teenager (a long time ago) and it has remained a favourite film ever since, with none of the later adaptations of John Buchan’s original novel making a lasting impression.

I read the book and found that a struggle - but despite my admiration for the 1935 Hitchcock, it never entered my head it would be adapted for the stage.

From very humble roots, though, it exploded onto the scene and when I first encountered it on its opening night at The Royal Theatre in Northampton in early 2008 it got a standing ovation, the run sold out and it returned for a second stint within months.

Since then we’ve had a family trip to see it at the Criterion in London and have also seen it as it broke out onto the amateur scene.

What was clear in 2008 and remains true this week at Rugby Theatre, it’s a thing of wonder to see a classic film so lovingly reimagined for the stage – but it’s a rollicking good night out even if you have not seen the source material.

The genius of the adaptation relying on a cast of four – one actor playing the hero Richard Hannay and the other three taking on multiple roles, close to a hundred – makes it ideal for smaller venues but as director Simon Burne makes clear in his programme notes, the cast may be few in number but the whole production is a mammoth effort behind the scenes.

The Hitchock film took great liberties with Buchan’s text, a spirit which Patrick Barlow embraced in his adaptation with further enhancements – and Burne again tweaks a few elements for this latest Rugby version.

He was part of the cast when it was last staged in Henry Street 12 years ago and his affection for the play is obvious and shared by all involved.

Together with the ever-changing roles, this ripping yarn employs various comic devices to move the action from London to Scotland and back again, with doors, window frames, ladders, model planes and trains – and more – all adding to the dynamic feel.

The fantastic four on stage show utter commitment and go with the flow as so much changes around them.

Dave Crossfield in his first Rugby Theatre appearance, judges Hannay to perfection – there’s plenty of physicality but it’s also a wordy role and he’s utterly charming.

His opening exchanges at the Palladium and back at his rooms with Katie-Anne Ray as Annabella Schmidt, set up the spirit of the adventure, with Katie-Anne coming back from the dead as the other key women in Hannay’s life.

That means the real multi-taskers are Malcolm Stewart and Dean Mills who swap hats, ages, accents and costumes with ease, providing the rich variety that makes the progress from central London to remote Scotland totally believable.

The pace falters briefly before the interval and the tune Hannay gets in his head isn’t as distinctive as perhaps it could be – but these are hardcore observations on a production that is another triumph for Rugby Theatre and its remarkable range of talent. Catch it if you can.

Richard Howarth