UK Tour

THE 39 STEPS at Richmond Theatre


“Always tongue-in-cheek, the show is thrillingly funny and villainously clever”

Sometimes a good – and fun – way of gauging a show’s reception is to listen in to people’s conversations at the interval. In the plush surroundings of Richmond Theatre’s bar, a recurring comment was along the lines of ‘it’s a bit like Operation Mincemeat’. So, first things first. It isn’t. The correct comparison is ‘Operation Mincemeat’ is a lot like ‘The 39 Steps’. The latter predates the former by a couple of decades at least. The most striking comparison, though, is the implausible ability to take a fairly serious subject and turn it into comedy without losing its essence; and to do so with a very small cast that cover a multitude of characters.

Patrick Barlow’s “The 39 Steps” has just four actors playing over 150 characters. Originally written by Simon Corble and Nobby Dimon it premiered in 1996. Barlow rewrote the script in 2005, staying faithful to the small-scale structure but taking it on its large-scale journey to the West End where it stayed for nine years. Inevitably it travelled across the pond where, on Broadway, it was originally given the title ‘Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps’. Barlow’s adaptation draws as much – if not more – on Hitchcock’s 1935 film as it does on John Buchan’s 1915 novel. His inspired comic treatment of the story has turned the play into a timeless classic.

Tom Byrne brilliantly plays the unwitting and hapless hero, Richard Hannay. With cut glass accent and even sharper precision in his depiction of a comedic matinee idol. Drawn into a mad, cat-and-mouse journey that takes him from London to the remote Scottish coastline and back again, he is pursued by both the police, and a band of dangerous spies who are conspiring to steal secret documents from the Foreign Office. Safeena Ladha is a delight as all three of Hannay’s love interests; the doomed Annabella (who kickstarts the whole adventure for Hannay before perishing in his arms); returning to the stage as Scottish farmer’s wife, Margaret; and also popping up throughout as Pamela, the archetypal ‘will-they-won’t-they’, ‘love-hate’ heroine. Every single other role is covered by Eugene McCoy and Maddie Rice, often playing many roles in the same scene. Their comic timing is flawless throughout and the character changes jaw-droppingly swift.

Maria Aitken’s staging is deceptively stripped back and simple. The whole show is like a conjuring trick. Sleight of hand scene changes and ingenious use of props and costume evoke mood, location; suspense and relief, all in quickfire succession. It is almost like a play within a play. Not only are we watching the story unfold, but we are also witnessing this crazy quartet of actors attempt to carry off the improbable feat (and quite rightly they bring on the formidable backstage crew at curtain call whose stress levels during the last couple of hours must have been tripping the fuse).

Always tongue-in-cheek, the show is thrillingly funny and villainously clever. References to all Hitchcock’s films are scattered throughout the dialogue, the titles name-dropped and represented visually and musically. Even Hitchcock himself has a cameo role, albeit in shadow puppet form. The detail is subtle yet obvious at the same time. You can be forgiven for missing some of the jokes due to the sheer pace of the production. A pace that appears chaotic and improvised but is, in fact, precisely disciplined and choreographed. Successfully crossing the line between suspense and comedy, and between realism and parody, is a master’s skill. These four actors have it. “The 39 Steps” is a ‘must see’, whether you’re a fan of thrillers or comedies. Or both. Or even neither.

THE 39 STEPS at Richmond Theatre as part of UK Tour

Reviewed on 4th April 2024

by Jonathan Evans

Photography by Mark Senior




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