Review: The 39 Steps – Murthly Village Hall, Perthshire

First published in The Times, Monday June 11 2018

Three Stars

No one is quite sure who coined the phrase “writing about music is like dancing about architecture”, but the enduring sentiment could just as easily be applied to the obvious incongruity of “staging” a radio play.


Watching actors poised in front of microphones, scripts in hands, while their co-stars rhubarb in the background, creating crowd noise, may not sound promising, and yet, done well, it can be surprisingly absorbing. Mull Theatre’s ingenious production of Whisky Galore, set in a BBC studio and based upon Compton Mackenzie’s radio adaptation, has been regularly revived to appreciative responses since it premiered around a quarter of a century ago.

Joe Landry’s live radio adaptation of John Buchan’s The 39 Steps is a clever fit for Dundee Rep’s spring tour of community venues across Tayside, Angus and Fife. Leila Kalbassi, the designer, has lovingly recreated the cramped attic space that served as a studio when BBC Scotland began broadcasting in 1923. The faded carpets, retro standard lamps and little table crowded with implements for the creation of sound effects all add to the sense of genteel guerrilla broadcasting. The cut-glass accents of the continuity announcers and pastiche of slightly off-key incidental music are amusingly on the money. A raffle, drawn at the interval, alongside refreshments served on trestle tables, adds to the air of nostalgia pervading Irene Macdougall’s production.


Pic: Viktoria Begg

Although Landry’s script switches the gender of an early murder victim from male to female and beefs up the role of Pamela Stuart (Emily Winter) as a plucky love interest for the lead, this adaptation sticks fairly faithfully to the breakneck pace of Buchan’s thriller. It heaps jeopardy upon the shoulders of its accidental hero and wronged man, Richard Hannay (a suitably dashing and ingenuous performance from Ewan Donald), around whose frantic quest to uncover the secret of the 39 Steps the various helpful, comic or villainous supporting characters orbit. Macdougall directs with a light touch, and the five-strong cast breezes through the action, tongues firmly in cheeks, breaking off from delivering lines to rustle venetian blinds or wrestle with doorknobs.


Pic: Viktoria Begg

The radio conceit is compelling, even if the show doesn’t always entirely satisfy as a piece of live theatre. It could do with some additional textures of lightning or movement in order to make the visual element (which is inevitably static) as appealing as the aural. Moreover, a hammer being banged off a table only really sounds like a gunshot on radio. This production keeps reminding us of its artificiality, which is fun, though nowhere near as thrilling and transporting as radio drama, much of which plays out in the imagination.


Touring to June 23.

Author: Allan Radcliffe

I am a writer, freelance journalist, subeditor and theatre critic, based in South Queensferry. My short fiction has been published in anthologies such as Out There, Elsewhere, The Best Gay Short Stories, ImagiNation, Markings, Gutter, New Writing Scotland and Celtic View. I have won the Scottish Book Trust's New Writer's Award and several of my stories have been adapted for broadcast on BBC Radio 4. As a journalist I write regularly for The Times, the Scotsman, Scotland on Sunday, Sunday Herald, Sunday Times, Metro, Big Issue and I was formerly assistant editor of The List magazine.

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