East AngliaReview

The 39 Steps – Theatre Royal, Norwich

Reviewer: Lu Greer

Writer: John Buchan
Adaptor: Patrick Barlow
Director: Maira Aitken and Nicola Samer

The 39 Steps began as a book from John Buchan in 1915, went on to grace the big screen in 1935 thanks to Alfred Hitchcock, and finally found a home for itself on stage in Patrick Barlow’s adaptation in 2005. While the show keeps the threads of the spy classic, it unpins just about everything else you could expect from an early twentieth century spy story. With 4 actors, 130 characters, and just 100 minutes to get the story told, The 39 steps throws the plot and the jokes at you thick and fast in this plucky, stiff upper lip play.

Our hero (Tom Byrne) absconds to Scotland when he is implicated in the murder of a woman (Safeena Ladha) he has just met. Trying to clear his name, he finds himself hounded by police as he tries to locate the head of the spy ring, all while being handcuffed to yet another woman he’s just met (Safeena Ladha, again). Byrne remains our hero from start to finish, giving him some space to flesh out his character and act as a reliable point in the narrative for the audience to navigate around.

Maddie Rice and Jacob Daniels take on every other role in the show. Their physical comedy and precision timing are excellent start to finish, juggling multiple characters while needing to be on both sides of the stage at the same time. Rice as a rather over the top Scottish landlord with Daniels as his ever-eager wife is certainly one of the high points.

The ingenuity in the use of space and props is what makes this play. The costume and wig changes in an instant act both as comedy and means of keeping the narrative moving while suitcases and trunks can fill the stage with everything from a train to the Forth Rail Bridge. There is a limit to what this ingenuity can achieve, however. While this show may have been doing what it does for longer than most, there are plenty of plays waiting in the wings that are pushing what is possible with fast-paced changes and clever stagehands with excellent timing, and The 39 Steps runs a risk of being left behind. It’s a show which is built around humour, but there are periods in the show where the script slows the pace to the point the audience has too long to analyse its depth and it does suffer a little for it.

This is a genuinely fun sort of spy thriller built on continuous movement, comedic scenes, and increasingly obscure Hitchcock references, strung together with a slightly manic plot, which is worth seeing for the tireless efforts of an excellent cast.

Runs Until: 22 June 2024

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The South East team is under the editorship of Nicole Craft. 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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