Review: The 39 Steps at Theatre@41

What an illustrious history! From novel to film, The 39 Steps has finally become a very entertaining farce. It is a simple tale of the hero’s unwilling involvement in an International spy ring, subsequent mistaken identity and a chase which takes him from London to Scotland. Now this story has become a fast paced slapstick romp.

By Angie Millard

The use of six actors to play dozens of roles is at the heart of the comedy. This coupled with skilled physical acting and use of multiple props which are propelled round the stage, as required, give the play an ingenious sense of the unexpected. Once again Theatre 41 has shown the versatility of its performance space. A door is pushed around randomly, a train is conjured up through the judicious use of a smoke machine and boxes. The Scottish Highlands, where the hero (now handcuffed to the heroine) negotiates obstacles like a country stile, using two poles held by four actors, or goes to a deserted hotel where he produces the desk bell from his pocket. are sketched out in simple lines. The value of good, appropriate props cannot be underestimated as their use instantly transforms the space. Richard Hampton and Simon Tompsett have worked hard to achieve this. I particularly enjoyed the phones which were in the actors’ pockets.

The director needs a fine eye for detail and timing which is demonstrated by the precision of the actors. The 39 Steps is an ensemble production and the company works together like clockwork. The speed of the action imposes its own discipline, as one fumble or slip can ruin the comic effect or in some cases, it is the delay which becomes the joke.

Some scenes were pure entertainment, such as the train chase where Andrew Isherwood, Stephen Wright and Aran MacRae perform athletic feats before slow-mo running along the roof of the compartments. I should say that all this was achieved with a curtain rail and some boxes. An armchair becomes a car, with a tin circular box as the steering wheel and, when Matthew Lomax moved the single door around the stage, endlessly moving in and out to show the layout of the manor house, I swear I knew the ground plan perfectly.

Lighting and sound are a crucial part of the play in which technical synchronisation must match the skill of the actors and it did.

Finally, let’s discuss the cast who employ a breathtaking range of accents to prevent our confusion as to their identity. Aran MacRae was a superb Hannay; suave and unruffled in adversity. Sanna Buck played three roles with subtle contrast and the hotel scene where she removed her stockings while handcuffed was superb. Their grasp of the period was striking.

The rest of the company were responsible for all the other parts as well as creative scene shifting. I cannot mention everything but I enjoyed Matthew Lomax’s use of sly humour to portray several women, particularly his Scottish hotel owner’s wife who needed her husband, Jim Paterson as an interpreter. Daniel Boyle was an impressive “Mr Memory” in the scene set at the Palladium and became a formidable caricature of a Highlander. 

Amongst other vignettes, Matt Pattison gave us a chirpy, cockney milkman tricked by his own cleverness and later a cunning Scottish doctor who dramatically turned the tables on a bemused Hannay. I also loved Jim Paterson’s grand guignol villain and particularly liked his use of the cat puppet to enhance the scene.  

There were more subtle variations; Andrew Isherwood became the character of a complacent Tory councillor with just a few facial expressions, while Stephen Wright embodied the frenetic energy of the organiser through bodily movement.

But may I just mention the herd of actors playing sheep who blocked the road? They were inspired.

I’ve tried to give you a glimpse of the scope of what the cast and director presented but I haven’t done justice to the humour. I laughed helplessly at times not only at the physical comedy but also at the sharp wit. If I haven’t convinced you of the quality of this very funny show, why not go along and judge for yourself?

The 39 Steps will be performed at Theatre 41, York until 14 November. The director is Harri Marshall. Set and Lighting Design is by Richard Hampton, Graham Sanderson. Wardrobe is by Helen Taylor assisted by Claire Spooner, Natalie Heijm, Judith Ireland and Lindsay Waller- Wilkinson. Props are by Richard Hampton. Simon Tompsett. The Technician is Sophie Slater and Stage management is by Livy Potter and Catherine Edge.