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Theatre Review: The 39 Steps


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It’s easy to see why The 39 Steps has been running for seven years at London’s Criterion Theatre. High on energy and laughter, this frivolous performance manages to combine the lot. It’s witty, energetic, and incredibly clever. With a cast of just four actors playing 139 characters, you’d be surprised they can even make it through the first five minutes...

The 39 StepsWe follow the story of a rather unambitious man called Richard Hannay (Ben Righton). Whilst he’s quite content, he has no real passion to commit himself to something new. That is, of course, until he is approached one evening by a woman claiming to hold secret information – something that could potentially destabilise Europe and have significant consequences for the UK; the country that he so loves. Just as abruptly as this mysterious woman arrives, she is killed before the night draws to a close. Hannay, our patriotic eventual hero, takes on the challenge, and goes on the journey of a lifetime, finding plenty of surprises (and women in the form of Ellie Beaven) along the way.

“The 39 Steps” has been described as one of the earliest ‘man on the run’ thrillers to have been written. However, despite the play being based on John Buchan’s novel and Hitchcock’s 1935 film (of the same name) the stories differ greatly. Many of the characters and events are altered in the play, with some completely new additions too. In any case, I’d prefer to describe it as a well-choreographed dance. In order for the comedy to work, the actors rely on split-second timing which must have taken months of rehearsal. There’s no room for mistakes.

The comedic value of a performance cannot be based solely on the number of “laugh out loud” moments. Whilst this show naturally had its fair share, I experienced more of a consistent feel-good attitude. I’ve been attempting to pin a label on its comedic style, but I think it’s a combination. Whilst it could be considered English farce in the sense that it features an incredibly outrageous storyline, featuring some often incomprehensible moments, it was still a relatively complex chain of events which is uncommon. It’s also got a whole lot of slapstick humour which, to the right audience, is just fantastic (I daresay this is a form of comedy more accessible to children too).  Nick Holder and Greg Haiste both play the roles of “Man” – they’re responsible for the wide majority of gags and quick-change acts. The 39 Steps features good clean humour, shadow puppetry, and not-so-special effects. It’s a huge slippery slope – and that’s the joy of it.

It appears that the original book was given to soldiers, whilst they were out in the trenches, during the war. The story essentially features a man who will stop at nothing to save his country, and that’s exactly the kind of spirit that was being projected onto the minds of our soldiers.

The Criterion Theatre itself, located at Piccadilly Circus, is one of majesty too. It’s an authentic Victorian building which takes visitors down into the depths of London, and it fits nicely with the story of The 39 Steps. The London Underground trundles past every few minutes, with its vibrations probably contributing to the suspense of the story.

So what are “The 39 Steps” anyway?

Well that’s the question - I still don’t know. And trust me, you won’t either.

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