by Simon Corble
The 39 Steps is a farce adapted from the 1915 novel by John Buchan and the 1935 film by Alfred Hitchcock. Patrick Barlow wrote the adaptation, based on the original concept by Simon Corble and Nobby Dimon of a two-actor version of the play. Barlow had originally intended to portray the character of Richard Hannay, but focused solely on rewriting the original version.
The play’s concept calls for the entirety of the 1935 adventure film The 39 Steps to be performed with a cast of only four. One actor plays the hero, Richard Hannay, an actress plays the three women with whom he has romantic entanglements, and two other actors play every other character in the show: heroes, villains, men, women, children and even the occasional inanimate object. This often requires lightning fast quick changes and occasionally for them to play multiple characters at once. Thus the film’s serious spy story is played mainly for laughs, and the script is full of allusions to (and puns on the titles of) other Alfred Hitchcock films, including Rear Window, Psycho and North by Northwest.
The first version of the play with a cast of four actors premiered in June 2005 at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, directed by Fiona Buffini. The featured actors were Robert Whitelock, Lisa Jackson, Simon Gregor and Mark Hadfield. Maria Aitken directed the revised production in its London premiere at the Tricycle Theatre (London), which opened on 10 August 2006 titled John Buchan’s The 39 Steps. The cast for the London premiere comprised Rupert Degas, Charles Edwards, Simon Gregor and Catherine McCormack. The production transferred to the Criterion Theatre in London’s West End in September 2006. On August 27, 2008 a Spanish production opened at Maravillas Theatre in Madrid directed by Eduardo Bazo and starring Gabino Diego, Jorge de Juan, Diego Molero and Patricia Conde (later replaced by Beatriz Rico).
United States premiere
The play had its U.S. premiere at the Boston University Theatre, by the Huntington Theater Company, in Boston on September 19, 2007. Billed as Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps, it opened on Broadway in a Roundabout Theatre production at the American Airlines Theatre, with previews beginning January 4, 2008 and the official opening on January 15, 2008. The initial run concluded on March 29, 2008, and transferred to the Cort Theatre on April 29, 2008 and then transferred to the Helen Hayes Theatre on January 21, 2009. Aitken also directed the United States productions, and Edwards transferred to these productions as Richard Hannay, the only actor from the UK cast to do so. The other actors in the premiere US productions are Jennifer Ferrin, Arnie Burton and Cliff Saunders. Edwards concluded his run on July 6, 2008, and Sam Robards took over the role of Richard Hannay.
In December 2008 it was announced that Sean Mahon would take over the role of Richard Hannay. Jeffrey Kuhn (Man#1) and Francesca Faridany (Annabella Schmidt, Margaret and Pamela) joined the cast on October 28, 2008. The show had its final Broadway performance on 10 January 2010 after 771 performances, “the longest-running Broadway play in seven years” (according to the writer for Playbill.com). The 39 Steps transferred to the off-Broadway venue New World Stages, reopening on 25 March 2010.
The play won the Olivier Award for Best Comedy in 2007 and the What’s On Stage Award for Best Comedy 2007.
The 2008 Roundabout Broadway production won the 2008 Drama Desk Award for Unique Theatrical Experience and Outstanding Lighting Design (Kevin Adams). It won two Tony Awards on June 15, 2008 for Best Lighting Design and Best Sound Design. It was nominated for four other Tonys: Best Play, Best Direction of a Play (Maria Aitken), Best Scenic Design of a Play (Peter McKintosh) and Best Costume Design of a Play (Peter McKintosh).
Film references & production notes
The play shares the plot and characters with the film. However, the play is a more comic treatment of the story, in the style of Monty Python and Barlow’s own National Theatre of Brent, compared to the original and more serious film. The play incorporates references and use of music excerpts from other Hitchcock films.
As well, the cast of four actors portrays between 100 and 150 roles, including actors doubling parts within the same scene. The quick, comic changes are reminiscent of Charles Ludlam’s The Mystery of Irma Vep. The part of Richard Hannay is the only one where the actor does not double in another role in the play.
Richard Hannay is at a London theatre, attending a demonstration of the remarkable powers of “Mr. Memory”, a man with a photographic memory, when a fight breaks out and shots are fired. In the ensuing panic, he finds himself holding the hand of the frightened Annabella Schmidt, who talks him into taking her back to his flat. There, she tells him that she is a spy, being chased by assassins out to kill her. She says that she has uncovered a plot to steal vital British military secrets, implemented by a man with the top joint missing from one of his fingers, who is the head of an espionage organisation called the “39 Steps”.
The next day, Hannay wakes up to find her dead, stabbed with his bread knife. He sneaks out of the flat disguised as a milkman and takes a train to Scotland, where she had told him she was going to find the man. On the train, he sees the police on his trail. In desperation, he enters a compartment and kisses the sole occupant, the attractive Pamela, in an attempt to escape detection. She, however manages to free herself from his unwanted embrace and betrays him to the law. He jumps from the train onto the Forth Rail Bridge and escapes.
He stays the night with a poor older farmer and his younger wife who flirts with Hannay. The next morning, he leaves in the farmer’s Sunday coat, and calls at the house the woman had told him of. There he finds the man with the missing finger-joint, the seemingly respectable Professor Jordan, who shoots him after a brief conversation and leaves him for dead. Fortunately for Hannay, the bullet is unable to pierce the farmer’s prayer-book, left in a coat pocket, and Hannay flees once more.
He goes to the police, but they refuse to accept his story, since they know Jordan well. Hannay jumps through a window and escapes into the crowd. He tries to hide himself in a political meeting where he is mistaken for the keynote speaker. He subsequently gives a rather rousing impromptu speech without knowing a single thing about the candidate he is introducing, but then he is recognised by Pamela, who gives him up once more. They are handcuffed together and taken away by “policemen”. Hannay eventually realises they are agents of the conspiracy when they bypass the nearest police station. When the car is forced to stop, he escapes, dragging an unwilling Pamela along.
They travel cross country, and stay the night at an inn, the girl still not believing Hannay’s story. While he sleeps, she slips out of the handcuffs, but then eavesdrops on one of the fake policemen on the telephone downstairs; the conversation confirms Hannay’s assertions. She returns to the room and sleeps on a sofa. Next morning, she tells him what she heard, and is sent to London to pass it on to the police. No secrets have been reported missing however, so they do nothing to help. Instead, they follow her to get to Hannay.
She leads them to Mr. Memory’s show at the London Palladium, where the police close in on the fugitive. When the performer is introduced, Hannay recognises his theme music – it is the annoyingly catchy tune he has not been able to forget for days. Hannay puts two and two together and realises that Mr. Memory is how the spies are smuggling the secrets out: he has them memorized. As the police take him into custody, he shouts out a question about the 39 Steps. When Mr. Memory compulsively begins to answer, Jordan shoots him and tries to flee, but is shot as well. The dying Mr. Memory recites the information stored in his brain, a design for silent aircraft, and Hannay and the girl stroll off, hand in hand.
Opening & Closing Dates
Type & Version
Jan 15, 2008 – Jan 10, 2010
Play / Original
American Airlines Theatre, NY, USA
|Role||World Premiere Cast
17 June 2005
West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds
|London Premiere Cast
10 August 2006
Tricycle Theatre, London
|USA Premiere Cast
19 September 2007
Huntington Theatre Company, Boston
|Madrid Premiere Cast
27 August 2008
Teatro Maravillas, Madrid
|Paris Premiere Cast
10 October 2010
Théâtre La Bruyère, Paris
|Richard Hannay||Robert Whitelock||Charles Edwards||Charles Edwards||Jorge de Juan||Christophe Laubion|
|Annabella Schmidt Pamela / Margaret||Lisa Jackson||Catherine McCormack||Jennifer Ferrin||Patricia Conde||Andrea Bescond|
|Clown / Man #1||Simon Gregor||Simon Gregor||Cliff Saunders||Gabino Diego||Eric Metayer|
|Clown / Man #2||Mark Hadfield||Rupert Degas||Arnie Burton||Diego Molero||Jean-Philippe Beche|
Awards and Nominations
- 2007 Laurence Olivier Award for Best New Comedy
- 2008 Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Lighting Design (Kevin Adams)
- 2008 Drama Desk Award for Unique Theatrical Experience
- 2008 Tony Award for Best Lighting Design of a Play (Kevin Adams)
- 2008 Tony Award for Best Sound Design of a Play (Mic Pool)
- 2008 Tony Award for Best Play
- 2008 Tony Award for Best Direction of a Play (Maria Aitken)
- 2008 Tony Award for Best Scenic Design of a Play (Peter McKintosh)
- 2008 Tony Award for Best Costume Design of a Play (Peter McKintosh)
- 2008 Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Sound Design (Mic Pool)
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- 14. Jones, Kenneth.“Broadway’s 39 Steps Gets Two New Zanies Starting Oct. 28”, playbill.com, October 28, 2008
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