We have just been to see “The 39 Steps” on tour at the Theatre Royal in Bath (of course). I knew that it had been very successful but not quite how successful until doing a little subsequent research. It began playing in 2006 in the West End and went on to complete 771 performances in New York. So we are really seeing the last drops of revenue being squeezed out of an idea first developed for a small theatre in 1995:“The first version of the play written by Simon Corble and Nobby Dimon for a cast of four actors and funded by a £1,000 Yorkshire Arts Grant, premiered in 1995 before an audience of 90 people at the Georgian Theatre Royal in Richmond, North Yorkshire, before embarking on a tour of village halls across the north of England.”
Let it be noted straight away that it was a grant that permitted what was to become a highly, commercially successful show to get off the ground. That said the interesting thing is that the original restrictions of the budget and the venues at which it was expected to play led to a cast of only 4 to play all 104 parts in the script but it was out of these very restrictions that the essential creative invention emerged, that is to say the extraordinary stagecraft and comic business necessitated by having to find ways for just 4 actors to shift back and forth between parts often before our very eyes, with sometimes just a change of hats, and between rapidly changing scenes and locations with minimal sets and props.
The original plot from the John Buchan novel is a mere skeleton upon which to hang the elaborate artifice of invention and illusion for the audience’s delight. The “business” is so central to the production that it actually required a separate “Movement Director” in addition to the normal Director. So I can only agree with the Guardian when it said:
“On its debut in 2006, Guardian critic Brian Logan was a little lukewarm about its charms. ‘The thrills may be meagre in this murder mystery, but the theatrical tomfoolery is to die for.'”
If you have an opportunity to see this production on its current tour do not miss it unless you are made of stone.