Tom Byrne as Richard Hannay chased by police on the roof of a speeding train . . .

 Pictures: Mark Senior

The 39 Steps

The Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham


Four actors . . . and an arm . . . gave Alfred Hitchcock’s classic 1935 film version a run for its money and gave everyone else a night of laughs coming as thick and fast as the costume and character changes.

We open with an empty stage and a morose Richard Hannay back from Africa and missing adventure and excitement, all alone in his one bed London apartment, so to cheer himself up, he decides to go to the theatre.

And there we join him for a performance by Mr Memory with an act which could help to explain why the age of music halls died a death.

Thankfully his performance was ended by a gunshot which leads to Hannay ending up in his apartment with the mysterious Annabella Schmidt, a foreign spy and femme fatale, or just femme fatal in her case as she ends up dead . . . eventually . . . with a knife in her back and a breathing her last scene that is long enough to probably warrant its own interval.

Her death is perhaps necessary as Safeena Ladha who plays her is also  needed to play Margaret, the shy wife of Crofter, an insanely jealous Scottish farmer. Margaret falls for the dashing, intrepid Hannay and helps him escape the police manhunt. That is merely a break for her from playing Pamela, the eventual love interest, the love bit coming after she has set the police on him at every opportunity. But we are getting ahead of ourselves.


Safeena Ladha as Annabella taking a lifetime to die  with Tom Byrne as Richard Hannay

With Annabella dead (eventually), spies and plotters under the on and off stage lamppost in the street outside, and a mysterious formula that threatens the security of Britain, Hannay has to finish off Annabella’s quest to save the nation.

So off we go with understudy Jacob Danniels dashing into the role of Hannay on Press night in admirable, stiff upper lip style, and, after escaping disguised as a milkman, he heads off to Scotland to thwart the international spy ring.

Hunted by the police for murder, he runs foul of the evil professor and his master race spy ring, so is being chased by police and foreign agents alike, on the run to save the nation while handcuffed to Pamela . . . don’t ask, it’s complicated, just concentrate on the quest in hand.

It is a quest that sees him run into some 130 or so characters in the shape of Eugene McCoy and Maddie Rice as Clown 1 and Clown 2.

The pair are just brilliant whether playing police, spies, the evil professor and his wife, landlord and land lady, underwear salesman, newspaper salesmen, railway guards . . . you name it they played it, sometimes all at the same time.

McCoy was fascinating to watch as he produced a variety of strange walks and persona. His character at the Scottish election meeting with what appeared to be rubber legs was a masterclass of comedy and his recalling of the secret formula as Mr Memory really was a feat of memory as it ran to a similar length as War and Peace


The cast of thousands, well more than a hundred or so, with Clowns 1 and 2 Eugene McCoy, driving, and Maddie Rice as secret agents, with Safeena Ladha as Pamela and Tom Byrne as Hannay, the prisoners in the rear.

The speed the pair changed characters, voices and accents, sometimes with just a hat in each hand as props, was comedy gold.

The play has some lovely touches, such as everyone’s clothes billowing as the wind blows whenever a door is opened – doors being just that, a door on castors which moves around the stage to where it is needed, needed being as in where it says in the script.

Wind is a running feature as we have the billowing windswept shaking coats, as Hannay is chased by the police atop a speeding train.

The props like the effects are deceptively simple, such as chairs pushed unceremoniously on from the wings, a carry on carry off lamppost, trunks for a train, chairs at a meeting rearranged for a car, even a pull on Christmas tree on a rope and, for audio visual effects, a shadow theatre with figures on sticks.

The most expensive special effect seems to be the cost of batteries for six torches in a search scene, but all that wonderfully nuanced simplicity worked a treat.

Peter McKintosh’s set design is true to the original concept which toured village halls in northern England and is a wonderful example of the set designers art while Ian Scott’s lighting, allied to sound from Mic Pool provides all the urgency and drama you would expect . . . from a black and white 1930’s adventure movie, wonderful stuff.

Hitchcock’s classic version was loosely based, and that is being a tad generous, on John Buchan’s 1915 adventure novel, and for film buffs there is the added bonus of spotting the affectionate homages to Hitchcock and his movies scattered through the stage version like currants in a bun.

Easy to spot are The Birds, and Rear Window, and we have North by Northwest as Hannay is chased in the shadow theatre by machine gunning biplanes on sticks, Psycho pops up as Hannay and Pamela have to cross under a waterfall, and there is a second bite at the motel classic as the landlord at the Scottish hotel pauses, Normal Bates style, before handing the key to Room 1, the fateful room given to Marion in Psycho.

There are also verbal references to Vertigo, The Man Who Knew Too Much and Strangers on a Train.

The original parody was written by Simon Corble and Nobby Dimon in 1995 and rewritten by Patrick Barlow a decade later, keeping the low tech, small hall feel, a feel that has taken the play to the West End, Broadway and around the world.

The timing is immaculate and it has to be to work as it does. It is great fun, fast paced, mad, manic, endlessly inventive and anyone failing to laugh probably needs their pulse checked.

Whether you have seen the original or know the story might add an extra element but, in truth, matters not one jot. This is pure, unadulterated, delightfully daft, brilliant fun.

Directed by Maria Aitkin, and on tour by Nicola Samer, the mayhem will run and run and run like the wind to 08-06-24.

Roger Clarke


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