The 39 Steps

John Buchan, adapted by Patrick Barlow
Criterion Theatre
(2010)

Production photo

I was lucky enough to be present at the 1500th performance of The 39 Steps to witness a show that's still as funny and fresh as when it opened, offering an evening full of suspense, intrigue and lots of laughs.

With a plot based on the book by John Buchan and visuals modelled on the 1935 film by Alfred Hitchcock the story follows dashingly attractive (if he says so himself), Richard Hannay as he gets caught up in a world of secrets, lies and espionage.

To divulge the plot would spoil the show but suffice it to say once Hannay is on the run from the law, the pace never slows as the production sprints to its conclusion.

Despite being a piece that has its tongue firmly in its cheek, all of the iconic moments from the film (including the escape on the Forth Bridge) are enacted scarily accurately through either mime, puppetry or by employment of cleverly used props. In much the same way as the ever-popular The Woman in Black uses baskets and boxes to represent trains and carriages, this production also makes the statement that less is more. With only four actors effortlessly playing over one hundred characters the stage constantly feels full and vibrant. With well observed accents, mannerisms and superb comic timing the cast (David Bark-Jones, Dianne Pilkington, Timothy Speyer and Jeremy Swift) are best described as an ensemble given their continuous interaction and unrelenting physical humour.

The combination of wit, clever quips and the quirky characters created with a broad brushstroke give this show a wide appeal with almost something for every type of theatre-goer and with stiff upper lips and overly clipped accents galore it is easy to see why it has been such a hit not just with the British public but with tourists too.

To describe this production as only frothy and frivolous would be insulting the intelligence of both its creators and audiences. This is a slick, shrewd and well conceived comedy with a homespun appeal that is carefully manufactured. Do not sidestep this show or you will miss an evening of pure theatrical skill and the opportunity to laugh loudly and freely alongside an equally appreciative audience.

Philip Fisher reviewed this production when it opened at the Criterion in 2006

Visit our sponsor 1st 4 London Theatre to book tickets for The 39 Steps

Reviewer: Amy Yorston