39 Steps to simplicity in Southampton

The challenge was to put John Buchan’s 1914 spy thriller The 39 Steps on stage with just four actors.

Patrick Barlow managed to do it with four actors, three packing cases and a ladder in a show currently celebrating its sixth year in the West End.

It’s now on tour, taking in the Nuffield Theatre, Southampton, from May 13-18 (tickets 023 8067 1771).

“It has been great,” Patrick says. “I didn’t expect it to do quite as brilliantly. Why? I have no idea. People like something…. Who knows why. Maybe because it is funny. Maybe because it is very well directed. It is probably archetypal, and also perhaps people like to see how things are done.

“I think people get fed up with all these big, huge versions of movies with bells and buzzers and flying around. You can’t see how it is done. With this, it is just three packing cases and a ladder.”

Key to developing the show was the realisation that it was not the original novel he needed to be working from, but the celebrated Hitchcock film.

“The book is quite a dinosaur now, with all due respect to John Buchan. If you compare it to the modern thrillers, it is really quite gentle. Dinosaur is the wrong word. It is just gentle. It is quite interesting, but it is a novel, and for the stage, you have got to have something that is constantly interesting. In the novel, Hannay spends quite a long time with various characters discussing things, and it is all very easy-going. It is a very ambling thriller.

“Hitchcock changed it around. Hitchcock introduced the girl. Hitchcock introduced all the archetypal moments in the movie.”

And it’s from that that Patrick took his cue…