As a novel, John Buchan’s The Thirty-Nine Steps (1915) is famous for being one of the inventors of the man-on-the-run thriller and for being the source of multiple film, TV and theatre versions which are often better regarded as their own work than as adaptations of the book.
Most versions agree on the very basic premise: Richard Hannay, currently bored and living in London, comes home to find a strange person in his flat talking about a conspiracy that will have adverse side-effects to both his health and world peace and necessitates him staying with Hannay for a few days. The ultimate consequence of this is a dead body in Hannay’s flat, which leaves the police with a few questions for Hannay and the murderers with a few theories as to how much Hannay now knows, forcing him to go on the run from both and find out what the latter is up to.
Where the story goes from there varies greatly, with most versions seemingly taking more elements from Hitchcock’s film than Buchan’s book. As such, Blackbox’s production, developed as a live radio play and now an online one, is probably one of the most loyal versions we’ve had. Writer and director Chris Halwey adds in a framing device (a 1962 recording studio where the staff has to fill in for the missing actors in a live broadcast of a play based on the novel) and streamlines and cuts down the episodic novel (originally published in instalments) but always staying true to the overall narrative of the book.
Of course, the tone is slightly different, the framing device adding stage humour to the early twentieth century thriller as Bruce McIntosh’s Julian plays Hannay and Scarlett Briant’s Brenda and David McCulloch’s Roy everyone else, with Brenda also doing the sound effects. The occasional mistake is made, such as the wrong sound effect or accent for a character, and the spontaneously developed characters sometimes sport exaggerated accents and affected voices to cover the (in-show) small cast’s doubling of all the roles. The premise of a 1960s radio version of a 1910s book also allows the production to pastiche elements of the period in terms of music and introductions.
The staginess of the humour probably worked best, as it was meant to, as a live radio-play where the audience could still see the performers and react to them in the moment. However, it is a well put together and entertaining version which can boast that it adheres closer to the book than most, though without going for the suspense thrills its source material was created for.
Reviewer: Oliver Giggins
Reviewed: 20th January 2021
North West End UK Rating: ★★★