The 39 Steps: form

The 39 Steps: form

Origin and Adaptations

  • Originally, “The 39 Steps” is a thriller novel written by John Buchan in 1915.
  • The most well-known adaptation is Alfred Hitchcock’s 1935 classic spy movie. Yet, the adaptation used for stage productions is Patrick Barlow’s comedic version, first produced in 2005.

Style and Genre

  • Barlow’s stage version is designed to echo the thriller genre but with a comedic twist, a style called ‘parody’ or ‘spoof’.
  • The form is explored creatively as ‘physical theatre’ with greater emphasis on body movement, gestures, and mime. This can help to project imagery to the audience without the necessity for complex set design.

Performance and Design

  • The majority of the storyline is carried by just four performers, with two of them, the ‘clowns’, playing multiple roles. This enhances the comedic effect and showcases the versatility of the actors.
  • In its design, the performance employs the style of ‘minimalist theatre’, limiting the props and set details. Instead, the focus is on the dynamism and adaptability of the actors.

Meta-Theatre and Narrative Devices

  • “The 39 Steps” extensively employs meta-theatre, a form where the production acknowledges itself as a play, breaking the ‘fourth wall’ to engage with the audience.
  • The narrative device of ‘framing’ is used, where one story (Richard Hannay’s adventure) is embedded within another (the theatre production). This non-linear structure adds complexity and interest for the audience.

Comedic Elements

  • Comic timing, slapstick comedy, and British self-deprecating humour is used throughout to ensure the comedy balances with the thriller elements.
  • The use of ‘suspension of disbelief’ is significant, where the audience is encouraged to accept implausible scenarios for the sake of enjoyment.

Medium and Structural Innovations

  • As important as the form is the way it fits the medium; essentially a radio play enacted on a stage, resulting in shared action and overlapping dialogue.
  • The form of “The 39 Steps” offers a great deal of flexibility and creative opportunities for directors and performers to play with theatrical norms and conventions.