So what’s going on here?
Patrick Barlow’s The 39 Steps, first staged at West Yorkshire Playhouse in 2005, is a stage adaptation of the 1935 film by Alfred Hitchcock – not the 1915 John Buchan novel of the same title and somewhat different plot. But it’s an adaptation with a twist: the film was a thriller, but Barlow’s version is a joyously funny comedy. The reasons for that have very little to do with the story, but it is with the story that we must begin.
The ordinary middle-aged hero, Richard Hannay, has returned home to London after a spell in Canada, and he is desperately bored by his humdrum life. On a trip to the theater he encounters Annabella Schmidt, a beautiful, nervous, mysterious woman wearing a plunging evening gown and speaking with a central European accent. She begs him to take her home with him, and it becomes clear that she is under observation by two men who seem to make her nervous. And that’s understandable, for it’s because of them that she ends up…
She has some vital information about a plot to pass Britain’s military secrets into the wrong hands (meaning, though it’s not made explicit, the hands of the Nazi war machine as it cranks itself up in readiness for World War 2). But with the two men outside the apartment, she’s trapped and has to spend the night. Hannay gallantly allows her to sleep in his bed while he shakes down in the armchair.
The next scene starts at midnight. Hannay is having a fitful night when Annabella appears at the door, holding a map, and moves seductively toward him.
ANNABELLA (husky): Richard?
ANNABELLA (even huskier): Oh, Richard – Richard –
HANNAY: Now look here, Annabella. You just breeze into my life from nowhere – You get me all – you know – involved and – well – actually I’ve never met anyone quite like you and – and frankly to be – quite frank –
(She leans over him, breathing deeply. He gazes up at her. He thinks they’re going to kiss. He closes his eyes in readiness. Suddenly she gasps loudly and collapses over him…
… a gleaming knife sticking in her back.)
With her last breath she gives him a clue, a Scottish place-name…
… then dies in a bottom-wiggling, leg-fluttering paroxysm.
This is a close version of the sequence in Hitchcock’s film, with Robert Donat as Hannay and Lucie Mannheim as Annabella:
Except that, on stage, Hannay can’t be presented with his profile to the audience – luckily for us!
That’s because the scene belongs to Hannay, not the dying Annabella. What follows is some business described in only a skimpy five-word stage direction – ‘Struggles awkwardly from beneath her’ – but rich in comic potential…
… not least because it usually involves his face going directly underneath her crotch.
He prises the map from her already stiff hand. In a lot of productions, it won’t let go at first, until he pulls the knife like a lever that unlocks her fingers. (It’s a triumph of visual humor over medical actuality.)
After locating the Scots village he needs to visit, he covers up her prone body with a sheet…
… then takes off, leaving her to be found by an alarmed charlady:
Her screams turn into the whistle of the express train to Scotland, and Hannay is away on his adventures, with the police in hot pursuit and a murder rap hanging over him.
After its transfer to London’s Criterion Theatre, the play won the 2006 Laurence Olivier Award for the best new comedy, ran for nine years – the fifth longest run in the history of the West End – and has been revived all over the world. (The examples shown here are from five different continents.)
Some productions, especially in Germany, arrange for Annabella to be in some level of deshabille – it is the middle of the night, after all.
The action is, unavoidably, set in the 1930s, but for those who prefer modern dress, here are some rehearsal shots.
Annabella’s demise is one of the iconic images of the play, often chosen for promo photographs and poster artwork:
Even so, productions will occasionally try out other positions for Annabella to die in:
This never really works as well as the classic ‘prone across the lap’ expiry, not only because of how it’s staged in the original movie, but also because anything else subverts a visual rhyme between the beginning and the end of the story, when Hannay again has a girl on his lap – the other way up.
This time he actually gets a kiss.
And if the play is being done properly (which, in the next photo, it isn’t)…
… then it’s a kiss from the same actress, albeit no longer in the role of Annabella.
You may have noticed earlier on that the charlady is usually played by a man. That’s because The 39 Steps is designed to be performed by just four actors, three male and one female: one man as Hannay, the woman as all three main female parts, and the others covering all of the remaining 135 characters, including the charlady! Part of the pleasure of this play lies in the fact that it’s not a realistic rendering of the story, like a film, but a theatrical performance in which we watch the cast triumph over the limitations of the stage medium. And that means the script calls for a lot of technical skill from the actors (one reason why amateur and school groups, necessarily less experienced than professionals, often choose to spread the roles among a larger cast). And one of the specific skills required from the actress is … planking!
So her trajectory in the play, divided between characters, goes from…
It could almost be a traditional Taming of the Shrew romance – except for the disappointing fact that it isn’t!
Hannay doesn’t spank Annabella, and obviously there will never be a production in which he does, even though there has been the occasional bit of rehearsal horseplay:
But the reason the play earns its place in this series is, of course, that the pose almost perfectly mimics an OTK spanking.
And an actress’s facial performance implying ‘Oh no, I’ve been stabbed!’ can easily read instead as ‘Oh no, I’m being spanked!’ – especially if you can manage to ignore the prop knife in her back.
So what we end up with is something that’s as good as a spanking shot, only with no actual spanking involved. And that is a phenomenon that I shall write about at greater length another time… And for more from The 39 Steps, go here.