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The 39 Steps


Ardler Community Centre, Dundee
Four stars

The BBC Scotland clock is ticking, the announcer is primed and the old-school microphones are switched very much on for the opening of Dundee Rep’s annual community tour. This year, in a spirit of familiarity as well as a neat twist on nostalgia, the ensemble company under the guidance of director Irene Macdougall renders Alfred Hitchcock’s cinematic reimagining of John Buchan’s classic ripping yarn as a 1930s live radio play. So, while Joe Landry’s ingeniously annotated version of the story focuses on the potentially world-changing fallout of upper-crust hero Richard Hannay’s flight from his London des-res after a female spy is murdered in his bedroom, such a novelty opens out a multitude of narrative layers.

The result in Macdougall’s meticulously observed production is what Hannay’s accidental nemesis turned love interest and saviour Pamela Stewart calls a “penny dreadful spy story” is a pukka romp that whisks the audience along a heady trail of international conspiracy in high places. Five actors led by Ewan Donald as Hannay and Emily Winter as Pamela move from high-speed trains to highland intrigue, with a big reveal coming courtesy of a music hall memory man on Leila Kalbassi’s pocket-sized set. With every line chiselled into shape to lead a listening audience with a visual reference, being able to witness the magic behind every door-slam, key-turn and simulated snog is a deconstructive delight.  

While by and large all this is played straight, with period mannerisms and actorly affectations to the fore, some knowing Mr Cholmondley-Warner style hamminess proves irresistible at points. Donald, Winter, Barrie Hunter, Ann Louise Ross and Billy Mack are clearly having a hoot. Crucially, they never undermine the fast-moving and deceptively complex plot that makes every moment an adventure.

The Herald, June 14th 2018

ends

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