The 39 Steps – King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

Writer: John Buchan

Adaptor: Patrick Barlow

Director: Maria Aitken

Reviewer: Gareth Davies

Famed for his National Theatre of Brent productions which wittily reimagine classic stories for a cast of just two actors, Patrick Barlow is also the man behind this reinvention of John Buchan’s spy thriller, via Alfred Hitchcock’s 1935 film version of the story. With four performers taking all the roles it’s not so much double agents as quintuple casting, as the audience is drawn into a witty whirlwind of spies and secrets.

Richard Hannay (Richard Ede) is minding his own business and getting on with the job of being your archetypal stiff upper-lipped British cad when he becomes chief suspect in the murder of glamorous foreigner, Annabella (Olivia Greene). Forced to go on the run to keep himself alive, Hannay follows a vague trail of clues in the hope of clearing his name by getting proof of a possible German espionage plot, and uncovering once and for all the secret of the 39 steps…

Buchan’s story was butchered by Hitchcock in the pursuit of fast-paced thrills and cinematic adventure, and Barlow’s take on the whole affair necessarily slices and dices it further. Tongues are kept firmly in cheeks as characters change costume at an impressive rate of knots, and an array of visual effects are masterfully pulled off with minimal technical wizardry – witness Hitchcock’s classic escape across the Forth Rail Bridge staged with stepladders and suitcases, a room full of people suggested with music and shadow play, and a high-speed car chase enacted with handheld torches.

It’s fast and funny, with the cast kept on their toes throughout this virtuoso display of physical comedy. Andrew Hodges and Rob Witcomb play every role which isn’t Hannay or a glamorous female, at times undertaking scenes which necessitate a flawless rotation of roles and costumes.

With such a madcap pace overall, the times when the story slows can feel a little faltering, but the show is barely two hours end to end and there is little time to pause or catch breath for either cast or audience. It’s a raucous and highly enjoyable evening featuring over the top physical comedy, spilled drinks, sliding chairs, movable windows, dodgy accents, murder, betrayal, haddock, gunfire, feats of memory and overly large maps, plus a series of subtle (and not-so-subtle) references to other Hitchcock films – including an iconic/ironic cameo from the Master himself.

A genuinely inventive production for all ages.

Runs until 23 April 2016 | Image:Dan Tsantilis

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The Scotland team is under the editorship of Lauren Humphreys. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. We aim to review all professional types of theatre, whether that be Commercial, Repertory or Fringe as well as Comedy, Music, Gigs etc.

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