I wasn’t familiar with The 39 Steps (the film or this play that’s based on the film) but I had heard an awful lot about it: “Outrageously funny”, “Fast Paced” and “It never fails to make me laugh”. HIT Production’s rendition of the famous comedy was none of those things. Frankly, I was bored.
I worked out the script pretty quickly – from what I could hear of it. Quick-fire jokes and one liners centred around the story of a confused British man, Richard Hannay, who finds himself wrapped up in a spy conspiracy he doesn’t even begin to understand. Except that the show wasn’t that at all. Oh sure it was ‘the story of a confused British man, Richard Hannay, who finds himself wrapped up in a spy conspiracy he doesn’t even begin to understand’, but it wasn’t quick-fire and the one-liners were lost. At times the jokes were thrown away as if they were unimportant.
It was slow – and slow was not what it needed. There’s humour in the text and the countless jokes almost screamed to be delivered effectively, but the direction seemed to actively slow down the action, which played havoc with the comic timing and the natural flow.
All the performers clearly understood comic timing and at times this shone through as a giggle or guffaw would ripple through the crowd before delving back into a stoney silence. Their comic instinct seemed like it was being held back by overblown directing, a flabby and struggling set design and a lack of overall drive or vision.
The 39 Steps text is clearly a rip-roaring good time of a play. The 39 Steps currently playing at The Athenaeum is dull and made worse when the gem of a text shines through, but those moments of light are not worth the painful experience of watching joke after joke flounder.