Thrills, spills and plenty of laughs are the order of the play in The 39 Steps, a fun and affectionate tribute to John Buchan’s spy-chasing and Alfred Hitchcock’s film-making.
The multi award-winning piece, adapted by Patrick Barlow, continues to prove a hit in the West End and is bound to be equally popular as it tours the country again with a quality production that shows no sign of creakiness but plenty of madcap wackiness.
It’s one of those theatrical treats, with just four energetic actors playing all the parts, minimal staging, few props and pure inventive genius. Originally under the direction of Maria Aitken, this version is kept lively by tour director Lucy Skilbeck.
Hitchcock’s classic 1935 film version of Buchan’s novel is referenced constantly, and there are lots of other nods to the great director and his work – from the crows on a signpost to a plane chase of the hero and an intriguingly used shower curtain, and there’s even an ingenious cameo appearance from Hitch himself.
The cleverness about this show is that it is much about Buchan’s spy plot as it is about the four actors trying to stage it, and therein lies its true tongue in cheek appeal.
Richard Ede is delightfully dashing as Richard Hannay, the reluctant hero drawn into a spiral of murder and mystery, while Charlotte Peters is all sultry and mysterious charm as the German spy whose death sends Hannay on the run, and as the English rose who provides the love interest.
Tony Bell and Gary Mackay have the unenviable but memorable task of playing a host of other characters, including detectives, villains, a range of Scots, and the crucial Mr Memory with much quick changing and silliness.
It’s a show which must be exhausting for its small cast, but of which audiences will never tire. There’s always something new to spot and never a dull moment in this ripping yarn performed with a flourish and containing carriageloads of style and wit.