I’ve always been a fan of radio plays: there’s something so comforting about curling up on the sofa, shutting your eyes and being transported to another world. I grew up with the radio constantly on in the house and evenings spent listening to plays, radio adaptions of sitcoms such as Dad’s Army or classic shows such as Just a Minute and I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue. So, I was greatly looking forward to listening to this radio play of The 39 Steps by Blackbox Theatre Company.
The thrilling novel by John Buchan, on which it is based, has been adapted many times since its publication in 1915; from the classic Alfred Hitchcock film to the spoof West End production which ran for nine years. It’s a tale of spies, miraculous escapes and intrigue but with great humour – and I was gripped. Reminiscent of old radio plays, it has a big chunk of nostalgia for ‘stiff upper lips’ and ‘Mum’s the word’. Blackbox Theatre Company have certainly evoked the golden age of radio drama, and I wouldn’t have been surprised if Dick Barton had made an appearance.
The show starts with panic, as cast members call to say they won’t make it in, due to a snowstorm. This means that only three people are available to play all the parts, and one of them is the tea lady. This results in some very amusing accents and the odd questionable animal noise. Despite the intentionally bad (I hope) accents, I was still surprised that three actors could build such a world of excitement and intrigue – although it was hard to believe that the tea lady alone was responsible for such fantastic sound effects. We perhaps don’t even need this back story, as the cast are so strong, and the occasional intentional mistakes sometimes seem a bit jarring.
Bruce McIntosh does a marvellous job as Richard Hannay who is on the run as the prime suspect in a murder case, and who repeatedly finds himself “in a pickle”. His voice perfectly evokes the era, and I was instantly transported to his world. Although there are some tense moments, with Hannay’s calming presence you know it is going to be ok – a bit like with Bond.
The radio format proves a good lockdown-friendly way to experience this play, although I’d now love to see the stage version. In fact, my only complaint was that it felt like it ended quite abruptly, but that might be because I was enjoying it so much I wanted the tense, final moments to continue.
For me, one of the challenges of pandemic-friendly performances is paying for tickets to watch theatre from home, and it’s perhaps even more difficult to argue the case for buying tickets for a radio play when we’re spoilt for choice with free podcasts and radio. But this is a fun production that the whole family can enjoy (if you can persuade younger ones to put down their screens and gather around the radio, good luck). You won’t regret the ticket price for this thrilling adventure in the comfort of your home.
Based on the novel by: John Buchan
Adapted by: Chris Hawley
Produced by: Blackbox Theatre Company
The 39 Steps is playing as part of The Living Record Festival, a festival of digital media designed specifically for streaming. The festival runs until 22 February. See website for more information.