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BWW Review: THE 39 STEPS, Birmingham Rep Theatre, February 29 2016

The fifth longest-running play in the West End, The 39 Steps is currently being performed country-wide as part of its tenth anniversary tour. This multiple award-winning comedy was originally adapted by Simon Corble and Nobby Dimon from Alfred Hitchcock's 1935 film of the same name for a cast of only four people. It had humble beginnings and played to small audiences in village halls across the North of England. Some ten years later, Patrick Barlow rewrote the script whilst keeping the intimate nature and genius simplicity already found. It is this version, albeit with different directors in different venues, that has had great success.

Crammed into one hour and forty minutes, it is a whistle stop journey through the popular film with the small cast playing a multitude of characters. Aside from male protagonist Richard Hannay, who remains so throughout, the other three performers play a variety of men and women; even fences and puddles during one scene (seen to be believed)! Maria Aitken's direction is fast paced but expertly so in order to not lose the audience along the way. Hilarity ensues as falsely accused of murder, Hannay keeps a wide berth from two 'policemen' whilst he finds evidence to prove his innocence and find out who did commit the crime. It is very slapstick whilst accurately representing the associated genre with nods to some of Hitchcock's other films including Strangers on a Train and Psycho.

Peter McKintosh's design is theatrical in itself with a very classy red and gold purpose-built proscenium arch inside the existing one with a theatre box each side. Behind this, the enclosed playing space feels like the backstage of a theatre with textured brick flats and visible hemp lines. Although static throughout, there are a great deal of furniture items and props that adapt the setting to represent other locations and is done so exceptionally well. The lighting by Ian Scott is superb and accentuates the physical assets of the production brilliantly. Equally impressive is Mic Pool's sound design and the cueing of the different elements is done to perfection. The actors onstage and the technical aspects need to work completely in sync with one another for the comedic timing to come across and this is executed flawlessly.

Hannay played by Richard Ede is a very debonair and masterful, constant character. His ease with the material is reassuring for an audience member and he manages his physicality very well. Olivia Greene plays three very diverse female characters including the sultry and mysterious Annabella Schmitt, Glaswegian downtrodden housewife Margaret and the beautiful, serene Pamela who has a Hollywood film star quality about her. Greene and Ede's chemistry is palpable throughout. The aptly named Man 1 and Man 2 probably have the most energetic task and the amount of quick changes they have to do is unenviable! Throughout the show, over 130 characters are played and the vast majority by Rob Witcomb and Andrew Hodges. Flitting from one person to another is not only physically but mentally challenging as well and these actors need to be greatly applauded for their slick transitions.

A laugh a minute, this show is a complete joy and not to be missed.

The 39 Steps plays at Birmingham Rep until Saturday 5 March and is currently touring until July 2016.

Photo credit: Dan Tsantilis


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From This Author Jenny Ell