Review – The 39 Steps

May 21 2013 | By More

✭✭✭✭✩    Hitched high

Gary Mackay, Tony Bell and Richard Ede (Richard Hannay) in The 39 Steps, Photo credit: Dan Tsantilis

Gary Mackay, Tony Bell and Richard Ede (Richard Hannay) in The 39 Steps, Photo credit: Dan Tsantilis

King’s Theatre
Mon 20-Sat 25 May 2013
Review by Thom Dibdin

The upper lips are stiff and heroically pencil-moustached in Patrick Barlow’s rip-roaring, four-actor comedy version of The 39 Steps, which is at the King’s Theatre all week to Saturday.

This is very much the Hitchcock 1935 film version of Buchan, rather than the original novel. And it comes complete with all Hitch’s cinematic devices, from a German femme fetale to chases over the Forth railway bridge and a manacled race across clinging Scottish bogs.

The joke, and it is not one which is tempered in any way, lies in the deconstructed manner of this delivery. If the script calls for snow to fall outside a window then it will be seen – but so too will the man up a ladder shaking fake snow out of a bucket.

Which doesn’t just add to the comedy, but also allows the production to cut between points of view – just as the film does – and go off into places which a realistic set just couldn’t be equipped to go.

The plot concerns one Richard Hannay, fresh back from adventures abroad to London in 1935 and fresh out of any ideas. When mysterious Annabella Schmidt insists on spending a night at his flat and is promptly murdered, he sets off to Scotland, convinced he is going to save the country.

Richard Ede holds back from going completely over the top in his portrayal of Hannay as he narrates the opening scenes and fills in the back-story. Which allows him to develop as a character over the course of the piece when, it must be said, there are plenty of opportunities for him to brush the clichés off.

Gets the swooning going

Buy Patrick Barlow’s

These mostly occur when Charlotte Peters is portraying one of the three women who catch Hannay’s eye. After Schmidt’s demise there’s Margaret, the young Glaswegian wife of a God-fearing country farmer who helps him on his way as the police come hunting for Schmidt’s murderer.

But it is as the ice-hearted Pamela that she really gets the swooning going. The chemistry is all there but, dash-it-all, the pair are just too uptight and British to actually do anything about it. Even when, manacled together and on the run, she is unrolling her stockings on the bed of a remote Highland hotel.

While Peters and Ede provide the narrative arc which stops this being merely an extended sketch, Tony Bell and Gary Mackay are working their butts off filling in the rest of the characters and the plot.

They play something like an additional 35 different speaking characters, from policemen to travelling underwear salesman and nazi spies to sheriffs. And, if the programme is to be believed, there are another hundred characters that appear in silhouette of dancers in a club or the voices of airmen machine-gunning Hannay as he flees across the moor.

It’s clever, laugh-out-loud entertaining stuff. And Hitchcock fans are treated to a succession of references to the Master’s works. Some, such as the appearance of a Psycho-like shower curtain to double for a waterfall, are obvious and signposted. Many more are hidden for the true aficionado to seek out.

Running time 1 hour 55 mins
King’s Theatre, Leven Street, Edinurgh.
Mon 20-Sat 26 May 2013, 7.30pm (mat 2.30pm: Wed, Sat).
Full details on the King’s Theatre website:

The 39 Steps webpage:


The 39 Steps on Tour:

20 – 25 May Edinburgh
King’s Theatre
0131 529 6000 Book online
28 May-1 June Inverness
Eden Court Theatre
01463 234 234 Book online
3 – 8 June Aberdeen
His Majesty’s Theatre
01224 641122 Book online
10 -15 June New Brighton
Floral Pavilion
0151 666 0000 Book online
17 – 22 June Malvern
Festival Theatre
01684 892277 Book online
24 – 29 June Oxford
01865 305305 Book online
1 – 6 July Canterbury
The Marlowe Theatre
01227 787787 Book online
15 – 20 July Nottingham
Theatre Royal
0115 989 5555 Book online


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