Review: The 39 Steps

-Kirsten Waller

Fast-paced, farcical and deliciously well-pitched, The 39 Steps works incredibly as a jaunty exploration of pre-war Britain. Adapted by Patrick Barlow, the aim has been to have fun with the conventions of the 30’s and 40’s, whilst preserving the break-neck pace of the plot. It’s an ambition which has been more than met.

This version is largely based on the 1935 Hitchcock film, rather than the original book by John Buchannan. This means you can have great fun throughout playing ‘spot the Hitchcock reference’. Particular gems include ‘Rear Window’ and ‘The Man who Knew Too Much’ (which gets an enjoyable groan) but there are plenty more to be had.

High praise has to be given to the four person-strong cast, in a story with over 100 characters. This means the actors spend their time dashing about the stage from costume to costume, occasionally wearing two at once. And yet this does nothing to detract from their considerable talents – if anything, the pacing enhances it. Charlotte Peters gets to switch between a seductive German spy, a down-trodden crofters wife and Pamela, the flustered but incredibly gutsy heroine, a task which she fulfils seamlessly.

Tony Bell and Gary Mackay take the lion’s share and handle almost all the other parts, from bosomy matrons to policemen and brash business men, with enormous charm and boundless energy.

Alone in the cast, Richard Ede plays a single character throughout, which would be seen as getting off lightly, apart from the fact that he’s in every scene. He gives us a roguishly sexy portrayal of Richard Hannay, the hero dropped into the middle of a barely visible conspiracy.

And yet in many ways, the staging is the true star. The almost bare set is dressed to maximum effect – there’s not a single prop that appears that doesn’t have a humorous and useful function, and the whole project has clearly been planned with beautiful precision. It’s the little touches that bring this home– such as the way an armchair slides from off-stage to meet Professor Jordan just as he sits down, or how peering out of a window sees the arrival of two trench-coated men on-stage, complete with lamppost and sinister music.

Like the best conspiracies, this production manages to be utterly bonkers and sublimely elegant, all at the same time. And like the whispers surrounding the ‘moon landing’, it deserves to be a cult classic.

-Kirsten saw The 39 Steps at the King’s Theatre, Edinburgh. It ran from 20th-25th May 2013

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