Patrick Barlow’s adaptation of the Hitchcock film of the John Buchan novel is certainly an impressive feat of theatre. A cast of just four manage to carry 90 minutes of action at breakneck pace with little time for catching breath. The cast, led by Richard Ede, possess a profound sense of professionalism and gusto.
A pleasant addition to the standard dialogue is the use of some shadow puppetry to capture an exciting biplane chase.
The play follows Richard Hannay, a young pencil-moustached gentleman whose night at the theatre takes an unexpected turn. Before he knows it, he has boarded a train bound for Scotland dressed as a milkman. Through a number of tribulations and meetings with eccentric Scottish characters, Richard Hannay liaises with the beautiful Pamela to lead police back to London to discover the real 39 Steps.
A pleasant addition to the standard dialogue is the use of some shadow puppetry to capture an exciting biplane chase. This continues to hold audience attention after a somewhat dialogue-heavy scene and works as an excellent way to provide comedy. Peter Mckintosh’s set design may appear basic to the naked eye but secret doors, hidden ladders and a truly clever proscenium arch (within the Theatre Royal’s very own) accommodate the ever-changing plot line and multiple locations.
Rob Witcomb and Andrew Hodges may simply be billed as “Man 1” and “Man 2” but their performances are much more than this. With costume and accent changes at lightning speed, the pair bookend the various locations with true force.
However, there is very little about the plot itself that is striking. The dealings with spies, memory men and police may hold a glance until the next loud bang of a shotgun but The 39 Steps did not have many on the edge of their seats.
On the night of the review, Ede and Olivia Greene (who performs all the female roles) received a truly deserved round of applause when they resumed the show after a false fire alarm led to everyone evacuating the building. The pair picked up from the start of the scene without as much as a blink. The ambience at the Theatre Royal was really rather warming and there was a sense of understanding from the crowd of the difficulty of returning after disruption.
Given the location, there were a few gratuitous additions, including mentions of Glasgow’s Sauchiehall Street. This non-stop theatrical sprint had the audience grinning every minute of the way. Standing side-by-side deliberate Acorn Antiques style mistakes was a plot line and comedic script which is ideal as British family theatre. A performance of The 39 Steps in an achievement for the cast and a thrill for audiences.