I would not be leaking sensitive information if I were to reveal that I like comedies. Look at my files and you can see that I have gone on record claiming that comedy is the perfect antidote to the tribulations of Oxford life. Antonia Hansen’s adaptation of the Alfred Hitchcock spy satire The 39 Steps covertly promised to defy seriousness and deliver a light-hearted experience: suffice to say, this placed it firmly on my radar. Much like these spy puns, The 39 Steps expertly parodies a tired genre with a solid knowledge of its fundamentals, but sometimes ends up inheriting the weaknesses of its source material.
Taking our seats to the tune of Frank Sinatra’s ‘Fly Me to the Moon’, the mellow yellow lighting against which the actors dissolve into silhouettes, Benedict Turvell knocking back enough apple juice to keep a nursery buzzing for hours; the stage designers nail the thriller, film-noir aesthetic. “Who the bloody hell cares, actually?” about wars, everyman Richard Hannay (Benedict Turvell) questions as he slouches in his armchair, solemnly recounting the events of his life. The 39 Steps has all the mystery tropes: an innocent man on the run, framed for the murder of an international spy; questionable, misogynistic flirtation; an eccentric spy-ring leader.
Except, The 39 Steps subverts all of that in favour of conjuring up a world of absurd unreality. Our hero, Richard, is both acutely aware of the artificiality of the world he inhabits and ridiculously unfit for the role into which he is thrust. Turvell embodies his character’s mannerisms perfectly, his eccentric tilting of the head, his awkwardness, his lanky, puppet-like run during the Scooby Doo chase sequences. Although loveable, his character can feel a little strained and confused: how can a character break the fourth wall so much, yet still get caught out by predictable thriller conventions?
Luckily, his reason serves as a great foil to the caricatures of the other actors. From Richard’s first meeting with intelligence agent Annabella Schmidt (Miranda Mackay), the play erupts into a series of ‘Allo ‘Allo!-style accent exchanges. Carlo QC and Jon Berry, the plays aptly named ‘clowns’ perform an impressive range of characters, from two perverted Englishmen on a train, to the innkeepers Mr and Mrs McCarrigle. Their attention to conveying idiosyncrasies diversifies each of their characters, even if they both share a Scottish accent, for example. Berry’s maniacal Professor Jordan even challenges Richard’s motivations as being romanticised, something akin to a spy novel, before growing a stereotypical German accent mid-sentence. The accents are hilarious, for sure, but they can drift towards over-the-top caricature, especially as the script becomes more repetitive in the second half.
Elsewhere, the producers successfully utilise the amateurish feel and low budgets typical of student theatre to further destroy any shred of realism. A fan appears during a train chase sequence while Richard and his pursuers flap their coats with their hands. That same train is composed of a few boxes arranged in a grid and the characters bouncing up and down in their chairs. Clever uses of lighting and sound are not always synchronised with the actors’ movements. Cheeky chappy Richard knowingly winks at the lighting and sound technicians as he opens and closes the doors to a party at the villain’s mansion, lights and jazz music cutting in and out whenever it feels like it. Such moments were so brilliantly timed that I could not decipher whether they were intentional or not, but they added to the sense that the world of The 39 Steps plays by different rules to its characters. Professor Jordan threatens Richard to join him and the cheesy party music cuts in for a split second. One of the villainous henchmen (also played by Berry) remarks on the sudden appearance of thick fog, but it is a solid five seconds before a fog machine is wheeled into the corner. Intentional or not, the actors adapt to the situations, and the result is comedy gold.
Without a doubt, the strongest aspect of the acting is physical theatre, an element often overlooked in comedy. The 39 Steps has an almost cinematic quality in its visual humour: Annabella (also Miranda Mackay) is careful not to reveal the knife in her back until she flops onto Richard, who exclaims “golly!”. Rather than simply moving the body, Richard instead decides to wriggle out of his armchair. This ingenious moment, and moments of a similar nature, had me in fits.
Annabella’s was not the only corpse onstage, however: some accents were so cartoony that not even the actors themselves could resist laughing. What is more, the marathon running time combined with the declining quality of the script and originality in the second half meant that, by the play’s conclusion, the actors were some of the only people still laughing. The play loses its steam after the interval, as characters incessantly repeat their, and each other’s, lines. For the actors to stay in character for such a long production was commendable, but they appeared drained of all vivacity by the end.
A word must be said about irony. The 39 Steps is steeped in so many layers of self-parody that identifying intentionality is futile. The ‘battle between the sexes’ has long been a staple of comedy, but especially in spy films. The 39 Steps has faith in its audience to interpret for themselves what is satire and what is serious, and some of these gags are genuinely funny: whenever a pink light is switched on, the characters are obliged to get lovey-dovey, reflecting the contrived and unrealistic relationships depicted in spy flicks. That said, the play never progresses beyond nostalgia, beyond pointing and laughing at tropes, and I quickly tired of the same “your non-existent husband is a lucky man” jokes and cringeworthy 60’s Bond humour.
The 39 Steps is rough around the edges, surely, but it acknowledges this and transforms it into a veritable parodic strategy. It is rare to see an Oxford play take itself as seriously as this 39 Steps – that is, not a jot – and difficult to get bogged down in negativity for too long over a play that so whimsically defies generic convention for the sake of putting a smile on one’s face. If Inspired Productions wanted to convince us that there is a place for light-hearted and nostalgic comedy in Oxford, then they certainly succeeded there.