Stars explained: * A production of no real merit with failings in all areas. ** A production showing evidence of not enough time or effort, or even talent, and which never breathes any real life into the piece – or a show lumbered with a terrible script. *** A good enjoyable show which might have some small flaws but has largely achieved what it set out to do.**** An excellent show which shows a great deal of work and stage craft with no noticeable or major flaws.***** A four star show which has found that extra bit of magic which lifts theatre to another plane.
Half stars fall between the ratings

A spiffing yarn at breakneck pace

Driving on: Richard Ham, Christina Peak, Rob Phillips and Richard Cogzell riding off into the night

The 39 Steps

Highbury Theatre Centre


GOLLY! This is a jolly spiffing spy yarn for all the family, what, as our dashing hero, with his rather attractive pencil moustache on his suitably stiff upper lip, takes on a devilish band of merciless foreign spies and saves the nation in the process.

This is adventure fast and furious, Boys' Own style, and for the cast of just four – plus a spare hand – it is a fast and furious whirl of laces, shirts, Velcro, buttons and zips as 139, or apparently so, characters – and inanimate objects - rush about the stage at a rate of more than one a minute.

John Buchan's hero Richard Hannay, played with an easy charm and 1930s mannerisms and accent by Richard Cogzell is back in London after some daring-do or other in some far flung outpost of Empire and is bored so decides on a trip to the theatre to lift the old spirits.

But during the act of the amazing Mr Memory shots are fired and in the ensuing chaos the gallant Hannay ends up rescuing a mysterious stunning woman by taking her home with him.

The stunning Annabella, sexy foreign accent (or should that be expectorant) and all, is our first encounter with – pause and dramatic music - Christina Peak . . .  but any hopes Hannay has of getting to know her better are dashed when she dies in, or rather across his lap with a knife in her back.

Margaret (Christina Peak) has a touch of hero worship for Hannay (Richard Cogzell) while her husband (Rob Phillips) drones on . . . and on through grace

Not to worry though because more women will fall for him before the night is out with first the smitten crofter's wife Margaret helping his escape and then the attractive Pamela, who first shops him to the police and then ends up handcuffed to him for her pains, comes through to help him thwart the spy ring. All the women have one thing in common – Christina Peak, who to her credit makes them all very different and believable, or as believable as any character is in this madcap spoof.

As for the other 135 or so parts, from milkmen to heavies, spies to police, manic underwear salesman,  husband and wife B&B operators, a Scottish worthy, or maybe not, and his wife, various policemen, bogs, streams,  compere and even Mr Memory  himself we have to thank Richard Ham and Rob Phillips.

Both of them have their work cut out all night long to keep characters up with the script, remembering the right clothes, rights hats, right characters and right accents as well as the right words and some impeccable timing.

They also manage some moments of pure delight and Rob Phillips' almost silent speech as Mr McCoy at the Scottish political meeting is a little gem.

We all know it is them, of course, that is all part of the fun, indeed there are scenes when, Tommy Cooper-like, they change hats and characters before our very eyes, playmates.

Helping with inquiries are Richard Ham(left) Richard Cogzell and Rob Phillips

The only actor with no time for changes is Cogzell as Hannay, now wanted for murder, sets off to find some Scottish hoose with a name which sounds like a throat infection, evades the police on the Forth Bridge, gets shot by a mysterious professor with part of a finger missing but is saved by a crofter's hymnbook in his pocket, escapes from heavies posing as policemen and ends up in bed handcuffed to Pamela as she removes her stockings – no, calm down at the back, it is not that sort of play -  then finally saves the day as both the mysterious professor and the unfortunate Mr Memory meet their inevitable fate with death scenes that are probably long enough to warrant their own interval. Keeping up?

All great, fast and furious fun. This is a play though where backstage has to work just as hard as the actors and despite minimalist sets it makes more technical demands than most productions with scene changes every few seconds including some, such as chairs whizzing on stage just as people sit down, demanding split second timing so a pat on the back to stage manager Liz Parry and her team including Sandy Haynes in charge of props and Kelly Tye who is dresser (chuck ‘em on, rip ‘em off)  to Ham and Phillips.

Most plays have lights up at the start and lights down at the end, this has lighting cues all over the place so Richard Shields and Andy Wilkes had to have their fingers on the button, or faders in this case and a pat on the back as well to Alastair Barnsley who had the awesome responsibility for what I am told is more than 160 sound cues, which works out about one every 37 seconds of the 100 minutes or so the play races along.

The four actors manage to keep up a cracking pace and although, on opening night, there are a couple of times when it drops a tad in the second half and the odd scene change took a fraction longer than was probably planned it was a remarkably slick and enjoyable production with beautiful timing which after all is the key to all great comedy.

Incidentally, just to prove I was paying attention from the start, I am not quite sure why Hannay's flat was draped in dustsheets when he returned from the theatre but was uncovered when he left.

A little mystery to start you off on what is a cracking production that fairly gallops along.

Roger Clarke

Since Patrick Barlow's affectionate send up of Hitchock's classic film, which in turn was based on John Buchan's 1915 spy thriller, was first performed at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in 2005 it has become a comedy cult classic and is still playing to packed houses in the delightful Victorian Criterion Theatre in Piccadilly in the heart of the West End where I first saw it.

It is never quite made clear what the 39 steps actually are apart from being a group of spies but according to Buchan's son, William, the name came from his sister, who was about six, and who had counted the steps down to the beach at the private nursing home, St Cuby, Cliff Promenade in Broadstairs where their father was recovering from a duodenal ulcer.

There were 39 of them and when the nursing home was later demolished a section of the wooden steps was sent to Buchan along with a commemorative plaque. The original structure was replaced by concrete steps which are still there leading to the beach.

Buchan incidentally was editor of The Spectator, wrote about 40 novels, and 60 non-fiction works and became Lord Tweedsmuir and Governor General of Canada, a position he held when he died from a stroke in 1940 aged 64.

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