When I asked how she would like to celebrate her birthday, Mrs W expressed the desire to spend a couple of hours in the company of a devilishly handsome adventurer equipped with a pencil moustache, a smouldering briar clamped between his jaws and a heather-mixture tweed suit of the type that stands up by itself when removed by the wearer. Of course, this could have been the Weasel, a chap who has knocked about the world a bit and is universally regarded as a cool customer, a dead-shot and a fine judge of horseflesh. Unfortunately it wasn't.
The tweedy cove with whom Mrs W wished to spend her birthday night was Simon Paisley Day, who plays Richard Hannay in an adaptation of John Buchan's The 39 Steps that has been playing to packed houses at the Criterion Theatre for the past 18 months. To be more precise, it is an adaptation of Alfred Hitchcock's highly regarded film of 1935, which bears only a passing resemblance to Buchan's cliffhanger. Descending to the subterranean auditorium of the Criterion, which coincidentally involved a journey of what seemed like 39 steps, I was not sure what to expect.
The poster for the play featured our hero clinging on to a train as it roars over the Firth of Forth rail bridge while another train hurtles towards him on the other track. Now, I'm not saying that I expected the stage to be filled with roaring locos and a full-scale replica of the bridge. I mean what kind of out-of-town rube would really expect that in a London theatre? "Isn't it brilliant?" chortled Mrs W as Richard Hannay, pursued by two members of the Scottish constabulary, dangled from a ladder standing in for the 8,256ft bridge.
"Er, yes," I concurred. Though disappointed by the lack of LNER rolling stock, I was rather impressed that Mr Paisley Day kept his pipe firmly in place throughout this ordeal. A detail of the poster should have warned me that the scene was an artistic invention to lure the credulous. While Hannay hangs on to the exterior of a carriage, a gloved hand extends through an open window and offers him a beaker of whisky on the rocks. Any pukka hero from the genre that Alan Bennett termed "snobbery with violence" would sooner plunge into the Forth than consume a dram adulterated with ice cubes.
Since there are only four in the cast, a considerable amount of quick-change is required from all except the dashing Mr Paisley Day – and even he occasionally has to remove the pipe from his mouth – as the action moves from Hannay's Portland Place apartment and the London Palladium (we in the audience play the audience) via a shaky railway compartment stiff with ladies' underwear salesmen to the Highlands of Scotland, where one of the actors is obliged to impersonate a hillock. Hannay's pursuit by both the police and a ruthless gang of villains is conveyed by some vigorous running on the spot, while his desperate escape from spotter planes utilises shadow puppetry in a somewhat more convincing way than Hitchcock's model aircraft. Finally, the yarn whizzes back to the London Palladium for the dramatic shooting of Mr Memory as he spills the beans: "The 39 Steps is an organisation of spies..."
Hitchcock worked up the Mr Memory business from a single sentence at the start of Buchan's original story. "I turned into a music hall," Hannay tells us. "It was a silly show, all capering women and monkey-faced men." A memory act may seem an unlikely repository for stolen military secrets ("It was a big job to learn it – the biggest job I ever tackled. The first feature of the new engine is its greatly increased ratio of compression represented by R minus over R to the power of gamma ... Am I right, Sir?") but Buchan's original is equally rich in implausibility, particularly when Hannay happens to find a stock of explosives in the room where he is held prisoner: "I hadn't been a mining engineer for nothing, and I knew lentonite when I saw it. With one of these bricks I could blow the house to smithereens." Buchan generously acknowledged that the movie version had the edge on his own. For some reason it did not occur to him to include a scene that involved Hannay with a cool blonde, a pair of handcuffs and the removal of some wet stockings.
"Phew! I feel worn out," said the birthday girl, as we hauled our way up from the stalls of the Criterion. "I've never known a show with more action. Maybe it's best to know the story first – those Japanese tourists in front of us looked a bit puzzled – but it's a jolly good evening out." If this paper ever needs a drama critic to provide astute assessments of cutting-edge productions on the London stage, I know just the woman to call.Reuse content