Criterion Theatre, London W1
Opened 20 September, 2006

When Patrick Barlow's agreeably daft stage adaptation (of Alfred Hitchcock's film version in 1935 more than of John Buchan's novel from twenty years earlier) opened at the Tricycle last month, my colleague Sarah Hemming's enjoyment was tempered by the observation that the show was "sometimes too taken with its own ingenuity". On seeing its West End transfer, this sense weighed more and more heavily on me as the evening progressed.

Barlow (who does not appear in this show) is principally known as the prime mover behind the National Theatre of Brent, whose propensity for tackling huge subjects is radically, comically at odds with the fact that there are only two of them onstage. But the laughs – and the paradoxical, unexpected emotional success – with the NTB come not solely from a playing style that left-field maestro Ken Campbell calls "doing it crappily". We also see Barlow's character, Desmond Olivier Dingle, and his assistant Raymond Box interacting with each other outside the main framework of the show; we get, as it were, a back-story to the principal shambles. That is missing here: there is nothing between the story and the cast. So when, early in the show, the dashing hero Richard Hannay remarks, "Hello, there's the telephone" two seconds before it rings, we chuckle; but when matters build to the point where the actors holding a billowing blue silk to represent a stream are told to hold it lower so that the two leads can cross it, the remark comes not from Hannay, nor from actor Charles Edwards, but there is no third option – no "Desmond Dingle" to stand between Edwards and Hannay.

Without that dimension, it simply looks as if the cast of four are not respecting the story they tell. Yet a key element to the intended appeal of the show is that such clean-cut heroes engaging in ventures of derring-do (here, Hannay flees a mistaken murder charge and unmasks a pre-war espionage ring) may be quaint but they still strike a genuine chord with us. Maria Aitken's production plays both the small-scale humour and the discreet series of Hitchcock references with skill, but it has mislaid the heart of the tale.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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