The 39 Steps

Apr 20 2016 | By More

★★★★☆    Terrific fun

King’s Theatre: Tue 19 – Sat 23 April 2016
Review by Hugh Simpson

Extremely silly, and completely aware of its silliness, The 39 Steps at the King’s is very funny indeed.

Bearing only a passing resemblance to John Buchan’s novel, Patrick Barlow’s adaptation instead draws heavily on Alfred Hitchcock’s 1935 film. This shares with the original the central figure of terribly decent, solid chap Richard Hannay and the dastardly plots he is unwittingly caught up in, even if the nature of these plots changes greatly.

A scene from The 39 Steps - Olivia Greene (Pamela) & Richard Ede (Hannay). Photo: Dan Tsantilis

Olivia Greene (Pamela) & Richard Ede (Hannay). Photo: Dan Tsantilis

There are references to many other films by the Master of Suspense throughout the consistently funny script. Some of these are glaring, like the heavily stressed reference to Vertigo, some are more carefully hidden, like the obligatory Hitchcock cameo, while others are so subtle they are easily missed. There are also nods to such other icons of 20th Century culture as Dick Barton and King Kong, but while these are undoubtedly fun, ignorance of them will not spoil anyone’s enjoyment.

There is the feeling of old-fashioned fringe theatre to the production, which is now touring after nine years in London. The set is an apparently bare stage, with an extra proscenium arch behind the real one to represent the London Palladium. There is no attempt to conceal any artifice, with a company of four playing all the parts with extremely quick changes, and frequent (deliberate) mistakes played for laughs.

In a sense, it is the opposite of Barlow’s most famous creation, The National Theatre of Brent, which specialises in similarly short-handed recreations of classics. The NTB are straight-faced, entirely unaware of their ineptitude, and present peculiarly touching versions of stories that are often oddly uplifting. Here, there is very little emotional content and every missed cue or ludicrous staging is celebrated.

The vast majority of the 100-plus characters are taken on by Andrew Hodges and Rob Witcomb, whose indefatigability, versatility and comic timing are a joy to behold.

gleefully essayed

The three female roles not gleefully essayed by Witcomb fall to Olivia Greene, who discharges them with panache and grace. Richard Ede, meanwhile, has only one part – the cigar-chomping, stiff-upper-lip Hannay with his ‘rather attractive pencil moustache’. Ede’s performance is always funny, often dangerously broad but it stays on the right side of hammy.

Rob Witcomb as Man 1, Andrew Hodges as Man 2 & Richard Ede as Hannay. Photo: Dan Tsantilis

Rob Witcomb as Man 1, Andrew Hodges as Man 2 & Richard Ede as Hannay. Photo: Dan Tsantilis

Maria Aitken’s direction (here refreshed by tour director James Farrell) is consistently clever and keeps the pace up beautifully. At half-time it seems unlikely that the level of invention can be kept up, but there is no real let-up. The use of props is particularly good, and Peter McKintosh’s direction helps immensely.

As befits a story set in a past that never happened and was rather ridiculous even before this spoof, it all seems a little insubstantial. But its heart is definitely in the right place and it is consistently – and hugely – funny.

Running time: 1 hour 50 minutes (including one interval)
King’s Theatre, 2 Leven Street EH3 9LQ
Tuesday 19 – Saturday 23 April 2016
Daily: 7.30pm; Matinees Wed 20 and Sat 23: 2.30pm.
Details and tickets from:

The 39 Steps on tour 2016
Tue 19 – Sat 23 Apr Edinburgh
King’s Theatre
0131 529 6000 Book online
Mon 25 – Sat 30 Apr Plymouth
Theatre Royal
01752 267222 Book online
Tue 3 – Sat 7 May Southampton
Nuffield Theatre
023 8067 1771 Book online
Tue 10 – Sat 14 May Leeds
West Yorkshire Playhouse
0113 213 7700 Book online
Mon 16 – Sat 21 May Glasgow
Theatre Royal
0844 871 7647 Book online
Mon 23 – Sat 28 May Guildford
Yvonne Arnaud
01483 44 00 00 Book online
Mon 30 May – Sat 4 Jun High Wycombe
Wycombe Swan
01494 512 000 Book online
Tue 7 – Sat 11 Jun Leicester
Curve Theatre
0116 242 3595 Book online
Tue 14 – Sat 18 Jun Cardiff
New Theatre
029 2087 8889 Book online
Tue 21 – Sat 25 Jun Salford
The Lowry
0843 208 6000 Book online
Mon 27 Jun – Sat 2 Jul Newcastle
Theatre Royal
0844 811 2121 Book online


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