Review: THE 39 STEPS, Richmond Theatre

After nearly a decade in the West End, the fun and madness of The 39 Steps is back on a UK tour

By: Apr. 05, 2024
Review: THE 39 STEPS, Richmond Theatre
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Review: THE 39 STEPS, Richmond Theatre Mix a classic spy novel with the genius of Alfred Hitchcock, add a dash of Monty Python and you have The 39 Steps. With a history spanning over 100 years, John Buchan’s 1915 novel was adapted by Alfred Hitchcock which then went on to become a stage play in 1996, adapted again in 2005 by Patrick Barlow to become an international smash.

Tom Byrne takes on the role of Richard Hannay, a bored man with a boring life who meets a woman claiming to be a spy. When he takes her home, she is murdered. Soon, the safety of the nation is at stake. A mysterious organisation called "The 39 Steps" is in pursuit of Hannay in a manhunt that climaxes in a death-defying and anarchic chase across the country, handcuffed to a woman named Pamela.

Byrne is hugely likeable as the affable Hannay, with more than a touch of Bertie Wooster-esque mannerisms. Safeena Ladha takes on the role of the three main female characters. As spy Annabella Schmidt, her cod-German accent could be ramped up to get more laughs, but she excels as the prim and proper Pamela.

Review: THE 39 STEPS, Richmond Theatre
Eugene McCoy, Safeena Ladha, Tom Byrne

Barlow’s adaptation often succeeds or fails on its two clowns. In a first for the production, one of the clown roles is taken on by a woman, Maddie Rice. Eugene McCoy and Rice have brilliant chemistry and bounce off each other throughout. Their scene on the train is particularly well executed, with deft movement and fluid banter. They are also great as the witless Scottish hoteliers, kitted out in kilts and sock suspenders.

This show remains an incredible challenge for the four actors, playing 139 roles in 100 minutes. They all demonstrate wit, energy and great dexterity in the physical tasks they must get through. Slapstick and farce is one of the most difficult genres to pull off and it is clear that the cast has worked very hard to achieve a very funny performance.

Tour director Nicola Samer deftly finds order in the mayhem, although a couple of scene changes could be speedier. The cast, in turn, support one another even though there often barely seems time to blink. Huge credit for this must also go to movement director Toby Sedgwick.

Review: THE 39 STEPS, Richmond Theatre
Eugene McCoy, Maddie Rice, Tom Byrne

John Wright, the famous clowning practitioner, writes about complicity as an act of being an accomplice in his book Why Is That So Funny. He writes “Complicity is the art behind everything…In theatre, complicity is a creative force in its own right”. This production is something of a feat in complicity. Individually the performers are all strong, but they are also tight as an ensemble; it is pretty joyful theatre to watch.

As always, Hitchcock’s influence is ever-present with many spoken, visual and musical references. He even makes an amusing cameo appearance, as he did in all his films.

There is a warmly old-fashioned, gently self-mocking feel about this production. Like putting on an old pair of slippers, it is not challenging or groundbreaking, but feels reassuring and very comforting to have it back.

The 39 Steps runs at Richmond Theatre until 6 April, then touring until 3 August

Photo Credits: Mark Senior


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