The 39 Steps (review)

39 Steps (West End cast). Photo by Tristram Kenton.
39 Steps (West End cast). Photo by Tristram Kenton.

John Buchan’s action hero Richard Hannay risked life and limb to save Blighty from the evil scourge of the Nazis but he may have died laughing if he sat in the stalls of Aylesbury’s Waterside Theatre this week to see his exploits re-imagined as a tongue-in-cheek comedy in The 39 Steps.

There were one of two in the audience who were surprised to find that they weren’t watching Hitchcock’s version of the classic thriller but it didn’t take them long before they were chuckling by the antics in Patrick Barlow’s novel interpretation.

mplo-39 Steps.

mplo-39 Steps.

Boy’s Own pin-up Hannay is a jolly nice chap with a rather fetching pencil moustache but, by god, he is bored. What he needs is action, love interest, and a jolly good adventure.

Before he knows it our handsome leading man is caught up in intrigue a plenty - but instead of a faithful adaptation of Buchan’s World War Two spy romp we are given an inventive and outrageously funny version that’s completely silly and delightfully daft.

Richard Ede is our dashing leading man who does a rollicking good job of sending up the whole action-man persona while the remaining three members of the cast – Tony Bell, Gary Mackay and Charlotte Peters exhaustively take on about 140 cameo roles (really!) to flesh out the story.

Some of the best moments are pure vaudeville especially when Bell and Mackay inhabit a multitude of characters by swapping hats or costumes and accents in the blink of an eye. It’s all incredibly clever and slickly achieved thanks to superb timing from the talented foursome.

The set is as original as the story-telling with doors being trundled around on wheels and rooms created out of a few sticks of furniture. There are also moments of sheer brilliance and absurdity with a toy train employed and a variety of shadow puppets.

The award-winning production is very Edinburgh Fringe – eccentric and totally batty and is perhaps lost in the modern surrounds of a major commercial theatre. It would have benefited from a few more of the Rocky Horror crowd in who would appreciate both the off-the-wall humour and the references to other classic Hitchcock films like Psycho and North By Northwest.

The story zips along at a cracking pace – done and dusted in just over 90 minutes – but it’s a cracking good yarn that I could watch over and over. Not, perhaps, what Buchan had in mind for his hero but a hugely imaginative way of updating a story for modern audiences.

The 39 Steps runs at The Waterside until Saturday. For tickets call the box office 0844 871 7607 or visit
*The 39 Steps moves to the Royal & Derngate next Monday for a week. For tickets call the box office 01604 624811 or go online