Belly laughs galore at Coventry theatre’s spy thriller

The 39 Steps:, Criterion Theatre, Earsdon, Coventry, October 15.

THE first night of this adaptation of John Buchan’s spy thriller was punctuated by spontaneous bursts of applause. Giggles, guffaws and belly-laughs, too. All were richly deserved.

Four actors dashed through innumerable scenes at breakneck speed, their verve tempered by split-second timing. By the end of the week they may well be suffering from exhaustion.

This is physically demanding theatre, particularly for Jon Elves and Craig Shelton, who transform themselves from German spies into variety-hall artistes, from travelling underwear salesmen into Scottish crofters, from newspaper sellers into plodding policemen.

And that’s just some of the roles they take on as the cinematic scope of the Scottish Highlands is shoe-horned into the comparatively cramped confines of the Criterion stage.

We are in 1935, which just happens to be the date when Alfred Hitchcock adapted The 39 Steps for the screen. It was exactly 20 years on from Buchan’s novel and another war was looming. Fear of foreign spies was rife once more.

Buchan’s earnestness reflected the seriousness of the times he lived through. After all, the guns were thundering in the trenches of Flanders as he wrote. Hitchcock’s film reflected his genius for extracting maximum tension from a good yarn.

Earnestness and tension are entirely missing from this production. It’s Buchan – and Hitchcock – played for laughs.

James Wolstenholme takes on the Richard Hannay role with just the right blend of mock-seriousness and ironic self-awareness. Tim Willis’s direction injects the necessary manic pace; Paul Chokran’s sparse but ingenious set milks yet more laughs. The Forth Bridge, for instance, is represented by a pole across two step ladders.

Last but not least I should mention Cathryn Bowler who plays three svelte femmes fatales with a sang-froid eventually softened by vulnerability. The scene where she removes her stockings while handcuffed to Hannay will live long in the memory. No doubt cinema-goers felt much the same in 1935 when Madeleine Carroll performed the manoeuvre while manacled to Robert Donat - eroticism with just a hint of bondage.

But then Hitchcock always was a master of suspenders.

Chris Arnot