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Review: The 39 Steps (UK Tour)

Review by Daz Gale



One of the greatest aspects of theatre and the escapism it provides is the ability to have a good laugh at the show… hopefully for the right reasons. With that in mind, a comedy classic has returned to the UK as The 39 Steps embarks on a brand new tour, currently stopping in Richmond. Would it be as well received as previous productions had and would this first time viewer of the show fall in love with it?

Based on the 1935 movie by Alfred Hitchcock, itself adapted from the original 1915 novel by John Buchan, the stage adaptation of The 39 Steps premiered in 1995. A rewritten version of the show debuted in 2005, eventually enjoying a West End transfer at London’s Criterion Theatre where it played until 2015 and has since enjoyed a Broadway run. It tells the story of stiff-upper-lipped British hero Richard Hanney who finds himself falsely accused of murder and goes on the run to try and solve the mystery of the 39 steps and prevent a secret from leaving the country.


With a cast of four people playing 139 characters in 100 minutes, The 39 Steps is a speedy and, at times, exhausting, madcap way of telling a story with fun, flair and dynamism. Tom Byrne leads the pack as out hero Richard Hannay, the only one of the four to spend the entirety of the show in the same character. With his tongue placed in his cheek and cheeky looks to the audience, Richard blurs the barriers between cast and audience to give the feeling of us all being in it together. A confident leading man, he gives an assured performance that makes sure you root for him all the way through.


Safeena Ladha plays a trio of women assisting Richard, be it to fall in love with him, help him on his journey or even attempt to stop him. In an assured performance herself, Safeena delights with her distinctly different takes on each role. The other two cast members impress with their versatility and ridiculous quick-changes, often changing mid-conversation or even interacting with themselves. Eugene McCoy and Maddie Rice, listed only as “Clown 1 and 2” take on everyone from police, theatre performers (art imitating life) or mysterious and nefarious characters attempting to bring Richard down. Regularly hilarious, their turns are reminiscent of a more recent wartime comedic show taking the West End by storm and will surely appeal to fans of that yellow show.


Patrick Barlow’s adaptation of the story leaves plenty of room for fun in a show that demands not to be taken seriously but simply enjoyed. While at times, the plot seems to get lost in lieu of comic devices, it never fails to raise a smile. I must admit that personally I didn’t find myself rolling around the aisles with laughter (which I’m sure the ushers would thank me for) – though it did raise a small laugh or two, compared to more recent shows such as Operation Mincemeat and The Play That Goes Wrong, it kept me entertained but never quite managed to have me creasing.

Undoubtedly, the more successful elements of the humour come from the physical comedy with farce and slapstick prominent in the visual gags. Most of this is down to a brilliantly stupid use of props, which had a more successful hit rate than the written jokes. Maria Aitken’s direction ensures this goes off without a hitch, though there are moments where the action on stage plods along and never quite reaches its desired impact, leaving me thinking it could use the tiniest bit of tightening up to ensure all of the written and physical comedy packs the most powerful punch possible.

While it may not manage to be as comedic as other shows I have seen in recent years, The 39 Steps is still a highly enjoyable and silly show that should appeal to a wide range of theatregoers. A safe and comfortable show, it is the perfect remedy to give you a smile if it is needed, but left me feeling there was potential for bigger smiles and bigger laughs. Fans of previous productions of The 39 Steps will surely be delighted by this new revival which doesn’t attempt to rewrite anything substantially and instead reminds everyone why they loved it in the first place. Similarly, those who haven’t seen it before but love shows like Operation Mincemeat may find a new favourite in this. All involved should be commended for their efforts here – if you want a harmless bit of fun to entertain you for a couple of hours, this show fits that bill admirably.

The 39 Steps is on tour around the UK until 3rd August, currently playing at Richmond Theatre. Dates and tickets here.


Photos by Mark Sepple




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