Theatre Review: 39 Steps @ The New Vic

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Alfred Hitchcock’s 1935 film of John Buchan’s novel The Thirty-Nine Steps is firmly established in the mind of film buffs as an iconic symbol of a spy yarn of its era. With matinee idol Robert Donat in the lead role of Richard Hannay, the film symbolised the British cinema of the time with its stiff upper lip characterisations and melodrama.

This adaptation by Patrick Barlow exaggerates the humour and melodrama and, while retaining some of the iconic scenes, turns the whole affair into a madcap and highly enjoyable round of silliness. Theresa Heskins has directed with a verve and pace that allows the action and comedy to rattle along to the great enjoyment of the enthralled audience.

Isaac Stanmore plays Hannay with gusto as he plays the strait-laced character portrayed by Donat but very quickly joins in the visual and physical foolery. Stanmore is unique as he is the only member of the four-person cast to perform as a single character. Rebecca Brewer is excellently cast in the three main female parts but the production is made a pleasure to behold by the antics of Gareth Cassidy and Michael Hugo.

The pair are both cast in the persona of Clown and the title is truly apt. In all they share 116 parts in the play – both male and female – and this means a whole heap of costume changes. These are often completed in front of the audience with such a bewildering speed that audience members can hardly believe their eyes.

The laughs come thick and fast in all varieties of humour and the scenes from Professor Jordan’s house are worth the cost of entry on their own. With such a frenetic pace there is ample opportunity for things to go wrong and it appears that there is the occasional slip-up. Or are these “faux pas” fully intended?

In fact, it doesn’t really matter as they just add to the overall fun that gives the air of pantomime. Audience members are often asked to participate and potential theatre-goers must be aware that if they are sitting in the wrong place, they may just be landed with holding some of the props. No one is immune. The First Citizen of Stoke-on-Trent was left holding a fake haddock for much of the evening.

If you are a keen codebreaker there is a challenge to work out the sequences of letters highlighted on the stage floor. I must admit that I proved to be no Alan Turing but my excuse is that I was too gripped by the acting!!

The production has been brought back by popular demand after its hugely successful run last year with the cast playing the same roles. The press night saw a packed audience roar their approval and demand four curtain calls from the players who had given so much pleasure.

I was unable to attend the production last year and am so glad to have been given a second chance to be entertained by what is rightly seen as a must-see production. Take my advice. Don’t wait around in the hope of catching it third time around. It is unmissable.

The Thirty-Nine Steps has a running time of approximately 2 hours 25 minutes including interval and will complete its run on March 28th. Contact the Box Office on 01782 717962