The 39 Steps – The HOUSE, Birmingham REP

Writer: John Buchan
Adaptor: Patrick Barlow
Director: Maria Aitken
Reviewer: James Garrington


“It’s 1935. August… and I’m bored.”

Our soon-to-be hero Richard Hannay launches into a monologue about the woes that have befallen his chums – everyday adventures like being eaten by crocodiles up the Limpopo and so on – setting the scene for the excitement about to follow.

This version of the John Buchan book is no classic thriller in the traditional sense, though. If you expect heroes, beautiful women and villains then you will certainly find them – but what you will also find is an extremely funny piece of theatre, for the piece is played entirely for laughs throughout. Taking much of its inspiration from the Hitchcock movie, we follow Hannay – complete with stiff-upper-lip, British gung-ho and pencil moustache – from his London flat onto the train to Scotland, to confront an enemy spy. Suspected of murder, he is forced to flee, escaping only by acrobatics on the Forth Bridge and adventures on the moors.

The combination of tongue-in-cheek writing and well thought-out business make this somewhat of a comedy gem. The premise of the show calls for the entire story to be performed with a cast of just four, playing 139 roles between them. One actor plays Hannay, and an actress plays the beautiful women he meets and becomes romantically involved with. Two other actors then play every other role in the show –heroes, villains, men, women, and even the occasional inanimate object. This calls for some very quick costume changes, and sometimes playing several roles at the same time, and the cast here do it brilliantly. The piece is specifically written to milk this sort of business to its full potential of course, and milk it the cast certainly do – to great comic effect.

Hannay is played by Richard Ede as a stereotypical wealthy adventurer in the classic mould, with time on his hands and looking for excitement – and at the same time describing his adventures with typical British understatement. He is dashing, resilient and courageous, and steadfastly focussed on his goal of defeating the villains, while becoming romantically entangled with every beautiful woman he meets. These beautiful women are all played by Olivia Greene, covering some very different characters – and very well she does it do, handling the German, Scottish and English accents with ease. Like everything else in the play, these accents are intentionally overdone, to good effect.

The stars in many ways are the remaining two actors, Andrew Hodges and Rob Whitcombe. Between them they play a plethora of roles – English, Scottish, German; male and female; mud, bushes, trees and rocks. These are the masters of the quick-change, flipping between roles with great speed, and absolutely straight-faced as they wring every ounce of humour from the process. Credit must go to the adaptor, Patrick Barlow, who has written this gem – for although the original story is from John Buchan, the comedy comes from Barlow’s pen and Maria Aitken’s direction. Peter McKintosh’s design and Ian Scott’s lighting both combine well to keep the action moving forward at a great pace.

It’s a beautifully pitched and very funny pastiche of the spy thriller genre and Alfred Hitchcock, complete with allusions to other Hitchcock films. Watch out for The Birds, Strangers on a Train, Rear Window, Psycho, Vertigo and North by Northwest, sometimes obvious and other times tucked away in the background, rather like a Hitchcock cameo.

As Richard Hannay might put it, “What a jolly spiffing yarn!”

Runs until 5March 2016 | Image: Dan Tsantilis

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The Central team is under the editorship of Selwyn Knight. 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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