Another that I’ve meant to see for far too long, Patrick Barlow’s comic adaptation of John Buchan’s spy novel The 39 Steps has been drawing rave reviews and winning awards since it opened in London in 2006. The play tells the story of Richard Hannay (Lee Ranns) who is on the run for a murder he didn’t commit whilst at the same time trying to save his country. The chase around Britain which results quickly descends into chaos.
I feel I should start by explaining that this play is categorically and certifiably insane, a fact proven by a cast of four actors playing 139 characters (including a river, a bog and a waterfall). Fast moving props, rapid scenery changes and cross dressing are all standard as the play hurtles along at lightning speed without ever showing signs of slowing.
The physicality and mental fitness which the play demands from its cast are staggering but the quality of acting and performance was truly excellent throughout. Understudy Hannay Lee Ranns made a demanding role look effortless, proving his comic timing again and again. His chemistry with Catherine Bailey, who moved between her characters with ease recreating herself convincingly each time, made for very easy viewing. The other 135 characters taken on by Paul Bigley and Stephen Critchlow were hilariously portrayed – even though some were only on stage for a few seconds, every single one was made to count. As good as the play was, it would have taken almost nothing at all to ruin it – when someone is moving into an armchair being pushed on as they’re sitting down, it’s either there when they get to it or it isn’t. The precision and timing of the piece was a pleasure to watch.
At some moments the story does reveal itself to be quite thin at the expense of the humour and some may find the whole thing to be slightly over the top, particularly if they aren’t fans of physical comedy. The piece does not pose any moral or existential dilemmas and it certainly won’t give you a headache as you try to figure out a deep hidden meaning.
What it is, in a pure and simple form, is well-performed theatre from which you take away the knowledge that you laughed often and that you had a very good time. The 39 Steps had me on my feet the second the curtain fell with every cast member entirely worthy of a standing ovation. Long live the West End’s longest running comedy play – it doesn’t deserve to close any time soon!
8/10 – A masterclass in putting on a slick show and a surefire crowd-pleaser.
The 39 Steps is currently playing an open-ended run at The Criterion Theatre, London. For tickets, I recommend checking sites like Lovetheatre.com and Lastminute.com as top price seats can regularly be found discounted to £20-30.