Fast, furious and funny

The 39 Steps

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry


I HAVE to say at the start that I don't remember laughing that much at Alfred Hitchcock's 39 Steps, or John Buchan's book, so I was a bit surprised to spot that this version of the 39 Steps was the winner of The Best New Comedy 2007, as well as two Tony Awards.

However, I eat my words; it was hysterical, fast, frenetic, farcical, funny, fantastic, very physical and frilling – oops sorry, thrilling.

Four actors ‘tackle' – definitely the right word – all the parts; 104 characters, often changing hats or outfits in mid-sentence. In one amazing sequence as Richard Hannay (Richard Ede), our handsome hero, racing on the train to Scotland after a murder in his London flat, two actors (Tony Bell, Gary Mackay) were the police searching for Hannay, plus station staff announcing the trains, plus other passengers travelling in ladies' underwear.

The whole train section was truly wonderful. The audience cooed at a tiny train steaming across the front of the stage. As Tom Stoppard muses in Jumpers, ‘Does Paddington leave the train or the train leave Paddington?' As Hannay's train arrives in Edinburgh a 1930s station sign shoots on from the side – brilliant stuff.

It's incredibly hard to describe the plot but here goes! Richard Hannay meets his German femme fatale, Annabella Schmidt (Charlotte Peters) at Mr Memory's show in London but she is bumped off in his flat by persons unknown. Everyone is after him, for her murder, the police, some German agents, the Professor and more. He follows the trail she laid to visit Professor Jordan in Scotland – shocking weather! – harboured by farmers, saved by hymn books.

Love interest in the shape of Pamela arrives and accompanies him on his journey. His quest to find out about the 39 steps leads him back to London and in a tidy volte face we think the love interest hasn't worked out but it turns on a dime and back in his flat, in his same comfy chair, she brings him a whisky and soda, a baby cries in the background, a Christmas tree in a fire bucket speeds onto the stage, snow starts falling and on us too. Lovely!

I enjoyed it all, particularly the back projection scene with Alfred Hitchcock standing on the sidelines. This is a tour de force, directed by Patrick Marlowe and completely wonderful entertainment. Go if you can. Ten stars.  To 27-04-13

Jane Howard 


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