ComedyReviewSouth West

The 39 Steps, Lyric, Theatre Royal, Plymouth

Writer: John Buchan, adapted by Patrick Barlow
Director: Maria Aitken
Reviewer: Joan Phillips


Patrick Barlow’s adaptation of The 39 Steps doesn’t leave a stone unturned transforming Alfred Hitchcock’s film version of the same book into a very funny, extremely silly evening.

Hitchcock’s 1935 film was loaded with dark suspense and jeopardy as the very model of Edwardian British hero, Richard Hannay, sabotaged the scheming plan of the evil Professor Jordan. Not only that he ‘got the girl’ at the same time. This comic adaptation follows the 1935 film version, itself an adaptation of the original book by John Buchan.

In the story, the dashing Hannay is relentless in pursuing his villain. First catching the fast train to Scotland, chasing across moors, hiding from pursuing cars and planes and dodging bullets. All the time foiling police efforts to catch him. In this stage version, the writer and cast follow this original and, at the same time, are relentless in packing in the visual and physical gags too.

No opportunity is missed to transform this well-known spy thriller into a hugely enjoyable comedy. Trains passing through stations, fog on the highlands, car chases, headlight searches, stabbings, crossing bogs and streams are all given the comedy treatment. Not only that, some of Hitchcock’s most famous cinematic moments are sneaked into the evening, as are some classic film clichés.

Much of the humour comes from the fact that a tiny cast of four play all the parts and manage the set changes at the same time. This results in some of the fastest costume changes and turnarounds in stage history. Indeed, sometimes, the pressures are so much that swapping hats or spinning round is all the cast can do. Why bother changing the stage as the characters move set when you can simply revolve a door? It all works extremely well thanks to the ingenuity of set designer Peter McKintosh – and castors.

The cast is led by Richard Ede as the courageous Hannay, complete with English clipped accent and ‘very attractive pencil-thin moustache’ throughout. Olivia Greene plays Pamela, the unsuspecting heroine, and all the other female parts (except one). Andrew Hodges and Rob Witcomb play every single other part and manage just about all the set changes. The programme designates them as merely Man 1 and Man 2, which seems possibly a little unfair given just how much they have to do. The two have some of the best choreographed and fastest quick-change moments throughout the evening. They are also, quite literally, props in some scenes. As Ede and Greene try making their escape across the highlands, Hodges and Witcombe become the obstacles, the hedges, fences and stiles, our heroes have to cross to safety.

The pre-war atmosphere is spot-on, combining the very best of classic Hitchcock and Ealing Comedy ambience – right down to the tightly belted raincoats and hats of the era. On this particular evening, disappointingly at times, the cast seemed to rush through some moments and line delivery was not always clear. The staging seemed to be overwhelmed by the very large space given to it which slightly diminished the intensity.

But it is great to come out to an evening of complete fun that would appeal to families of all ages. Pure entertainment.

Runs until 30 April 2016 at Theatre Royal Plymouth then continues tour| Image: Dan Tsantilis


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The Southwest team is under the editorship of Holly Spanner. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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