The 39 Steps

Patrick Barlow, based on the novel by John Buchan and the film by Alfred Hitchcock
Stephen Joseph Theatre
Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough

Sam Jenkins-Shaw (Richard Hannay) Credit: Sam Taylor
Niall Ransome (Man) and Laura Kirman (Woman) Credit: Sam Taylor
Amelia Donkor (Pamela) Credit: Sam Taylor

John Buchan's gripping thriller The 39 Steps enjoyed huge success when it was first published in 1915, introducing the world to the unflappable, moustachioed action hero Richard Hannay who would appear in four subsequent novels. It also inspired an iconic film adaptation by Alfred Hitchcock in 1935 which is regularly voted one of the best British films of all time.

However, despite the success of both the novel and the film, it's possible that they have been eclipsed in recent years by Patrick Barlow's stage version. After a nine-year run in the West End, Barlow's comic take on the Hitchcock film—in which the far-fetched plot is played for laughs by a cast of four—is now a familiar and much-loved feature of the theatrical landscape.

Following an ill-advised night at the theatre, Richard Hannay (Sam Jenkins-Shaw) becomes entangled in a web of international intrigue. Framed for the murder of a counter-espionage agent, he must travel to Scotland to clear his name and prevent a nefarious spy ring from transporting British military secrets out of the country.

Despite being pursued by police and amoral spies, Hannay still finds time to strike up a romance with Pamela (Amelia Donkor), to whom he is handcuffed for much of the second half.

Having thoroughly enjoyed Barlow's theatrical version of The 39 Steps on previous occasions, I was curious to see how director Paul Robinson would meet the challenge of staging the show in-the-round. For the most part, he does so with great success, preserving the bristling comic energy and breakneck speed that has made the show so immensely popular.

Although a few gags lose their sharpness when performed in-the-round, there are many instances where the intimacy of the in-the-round staging actually enhances the production.

Helen Coyston's flexible set design, in which various locations are created through the quick addition of props, ensures that the production is fluid throughout. Most importantly, she preserves the small-scale feel of the original production, in which the illusion of train travel, for example, is created by having actors jostle up and down whilst sitting on trunks.

Jason Taylor's lighting and Simon Slater's sound design contribute immeasurably to a production that relies heavily on the audience's imagination.

The 39 Steps is performed with dazzling comic flair by its four young performers. Sam Jenkins-Shaw is splendid in the leading role, capturing Hannay's winning blend of suaveness and indefatigability. He's ably supported by Amelia Donkor, who convinces us that prim Pamela could fall for Hannay's charms under the right circumstances. She's also delightfully vampish as Annabella Schmidt, so it's a pity she gets stabbed in the first 20 minutes.

Much of the play's comic power derives from having two performers play dozens of different characters, including men, women and children. Laura Kirman and Niall Ransome, both stalwarts of Mischief Theatre, cope brilliantly with their innumerable roles. In one particularly impressive scene, the performers switch characters at lightning speed in order to convey the sense of a bustling Scottish train station.

The 39 Steps is a fabulous entertainment that combines immersive storytelling and comic ingenuity to great effect.

Reviewer: James Ballands