This is actually the first time I’ve seen The 39 Steps despite its perennial fixture on the theatrical listings, or perhaps it is actually because of it. Like tourist attractions like The London Eye or the Aquarium, it’s something I’ve walked past a hundred times without ever really thinking about it, assuming that I’d go along one day but never quite mustering the enthusiasm to do so until someone else gives you a kick up the bum.
Such kick duly administered, we delved our way into the depths of the Criterion Theatre and settled down for a couple of hours of top-notch entertainment. I’d say it is under-rated but that’s not really true as audiences have been flocking to Patrick Barlow’s adaptation of Simon Corble and Nobby Dimon’s original show since 2006 and it isn’t hard to see why. The concept of 4 actors taking on 139 characters with a bare minimum of props is simplicity itself but an absolute treasure to behold.
You may be familiar with the story of walking-stiff-upper-lip Richard Hannay (played brilliantly here by Richard Galazka) from John Buchan’s novel or Alfred Hitchcock’s film but you can rest assured you haven’t seen the rest of the story done like this. Alix Dunmore takes on the role of the three femme fatales that he cannot resist but the real joy comes from Tim Frances and Daniel Tuite who play the remaining 135 people, often covering multiple roles in the same scene.
For me, the highlight was the scene on the train platform which saw them play umpteen people with an endless assortment of hats, providing the kind of physical theatre thrills I had no reason to expect and which are executed flawlessly. Tuite and Frances must have it down to a fine art now but it is still no reason not to recognise their achievements. So if by chance you were in the position as me and not sure whether to go, then I highly recommend making the effort. And if you’ve already seen it, why didn’t you persuade me to go much earlier?!