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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at the Criterion, London

By Michael Leech

  Charles Edwards, Rupert Degas and Simon Gregor

We are told in a programme note that the works of John Buchan were written in 'moments of his spare time'. Indeed much of his full life - from birth in Perth to a long life in England was taken up with the law and publishing. He turned to writing at almost 40 when unwell and he had to rest. Thus The 39 Steps was conceived, followed by other novels culminating in The Island of Sheep, written while he was Governor General of Canada. Despite all the achievements of this career it's doubtful we would recognize his name if it wasn't for the novels. He was certainly what we would now call a workaholic.

What would he think of this version of his most famous book? It has been three times filmed (first by Hitchcock who introduced a female character) and the title of the work remains enigmatic. It is hardly outlined in the films, but Buchan records it as a flight of steps down from his cliff top home to the beach - and at North Foreland by the Channel in Kent you can still see them.

So it is hardly surprising that they don't even come into this new version. Indeed the only steps here are lot of fast footwork by the actors, for this is the book in a burlesque version. The popular yarn has been made into a whippy, nippy blast of a show that bears little resemblance to the play, which toured over the last decade.

Then last year, that clever clown Patrick Barlow got his fingers into it. The madness of the whimsical Barlow touch has made this a fast-moving farrago of comical nonsense, which certainly gets to the audience. There were several Americans close to us when we saw it and they all enthused saying 'this is the London show we were told to see'. Well, yes, ok - and you should note that one of London's brightest 'fringe' spots, the Tricycle, first geared this new version into action.

Buchan's story involves the chasing of his hero Inspector Hannay (Charles Edwards) across Scotland - and we get a whiz-bang view of that. As acted by only four people Maria Aitken's staging keeps them all in a whirl, shuffling scenes and scenery too. As 'everyone else' in the play the two 'clowns' change garb and roles so fast it's hard to keep up and Rupert Degas and Simon Gregor fulfill their roles with wild imagination. Like a French farce, it's fast paced, funny and literally off the wall. Even if the actual story is submerged in eccentricity and weltered in waves of madness - who cares? For a crowded audience it was two hours of a laugh a minute and more.



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