Tag Archives: Peter McKintosh



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




Best shows in March 2024:

THE LONELY LONDONERS | ★★★★ | Jermyn Street Theatre | March 2024
CONSIDERED SUICIDE WHEN THE HUE GETS TOO HEAVY | ★★★★ | Garrick Theatre | March 2024
BLUE | ★★★★ | Seven Dials Playhouse | March 2024
GUYS & DOLLS | ★★★★★ | Bridge Theatre | March 2024
POLICE COPS: THE MUSICAL | ★★★★ | Southwark Playhouse Elephant | March 2024
HIDE AND SEEK | ★★★★ | Park Theatre | March 2024
APRICOT | ★★★★ | Theatre503 | March 2024
IN CLAY | ★★★★★ | Upstairs at the Gatehouse | March 2024
HOSTAGE | ★★★★ | Etcetera Theatre | March 2024
ASSEMBLY HALL | ★★★★★ | Sadler’s Wells Theatre | March 2024
PRISCILLA THE PARTY! | ★★★★★ | HERE at Outernet | March 2024
MIND MANGLER | ★★★★ | Apollo Theatre | March 2024
BREEDING | ★★★★ | King’s Head Theatre (new) | March 2024
DON’T. MAKE. TEA. | ★★★★★ | Soho Theatre | March 2024
THE DREAM OF A RIDICULOUS MAN | ★★★★ | Marylebone Theatre | March 2024
THE DIVINE MRS S | ★★★★ | Hampstead Theatre | March 2024



Click here to see our Recommended Shows page


Cuckoo cast



Royal Court

CUCKOO at the Royal Court


Cuckoo cast

“Despite strong visuals, the dark comedy doesn’t say anything ground-breaking or particularly witty and the script”


Cuckoo, the latest play from Michael Wynne and directed by Vicky Featherstone, has an interesting concept. We are introduced to three-generations of a family living in Birkenhead as they sit around the dinner table, engrossed in their phones, eating a fish and chip tea. Doreen (Sue Jenkins), the sweet and unwittingly funny grandmother, waits on her two grown-up daughters – Carmel (Michelle Butterly) and Sarah (Jodie McNee) – and Carmel’s near-silent daughter Megyn (Emma Harrison, making her debut). Megyn, after another argument with her irascible mother, storms upstairs, locks herself in her grandmother’s bedroom and thenceforth will only communicate via text.

Why? The reason is never fully obvious, and the plot is, unfortunately, rather aimless. As the story unfolds, we do, however, learn more about the family’s history and possible theories as to what may have driven Megyn to such a drastic action, as well as exploring the sometimes-dangerous escapism that our phones can offer us.

Jenkins and McNee are the standouts here and their characters have the most interesting personal arcs. Doreen has used her phone to better her life – meeting a kind man who empowers her to speak her mind unlike her controlling husband of 45 years; whilst Sarah – the first to request that phones are put away at the table – is ultimately plagued waiting for a certain notification to come through.

Unfortunately, the relationship between Carmel and her daughter is not wholly believable. This is no fault of the actors who do a fair job of working the stilted dialogue but rather the effect of Megyn’s isolation for so much of the play. There is no opportunity to see a growth in their dynamic as Megyn simply isn’t present and when she is, she is mute or looking around wildly.

Despite the all-female cast, men loom in their lives. Sarah talks passionately about her father whilst – by contrast – Carmel complains about her lousy ex-husband. There is a suggestion that a man has hurt Megyn hence her retreat from public life, but this is never fully explored. Many big topics are mentioned in passing such as abuse and environmentalism, but no one issue is settled on long enough to be justly handled.

Phones feature heavily throughout the play. The characters hold them firmly in their hands even in the tensest of confrontations. As Sarah reveals her darkest moments to her niece, she cannot help but clutch her phone and check it hurriedly when it buzzes. Reality vs fantasy is a strong theme too – the family gather around a phone to watch a video of a recent terror attack and complain when the content isn’t graphic enough whilst Megyn posts lies online about the loving relationship she has with her mother to her thousands of followers.

This theme is hammered home by Sarah’s rather on the nose comment that perhaps Megyn locking herself away is a perfectly reasonable reaction to everything that’s ‘going on’ in the world.

The realistic set (Peter McKintosh) is a marvel. A beautifully constructed living room (complete with conservatory) and kitchen unit. The bottom floor is circled by a shallow pool of water into which rain cascades early in the first half. A hallway leads from the kitchen to the left-hand-side of the stage where a staircase leads its ascenders off stage. The audience is left to wonder what tragic sight is behind the locked doors of Megyn’s sanctuary until the very final scene. The lighting (Jai Morjaria) is good and well reflects the time or weather outside the home or the mood within its walls.

Nick Powell’s discordant sounds and folk versions of The Cuckoo create a great sense of overwhelm and anxiety that reflects that caused by the constant stream of information available on our portable devices. Different sounds are utilised to represent various apps pinging off such as a ka-ching when Doreen sells an item online, a quirk that is given sizeable meaning later on.

Alas, Cuckoo has not lived up to its promise. Despite strong visuals, the dark comedy doesn’t say anything ground-breaking or particularly witty and the script leaves much to be desired.



Reviewed on 12th July 2023

by Flora Doble

Photography by Manuel Harlan



Previously reviewed at this venue:


Black Superhero | ★★★★ | March 2023
For Black Boys … | ★★★★★ | April 2022


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