★★★ The 39 Steps | A murdered spy, a misty Scottish moor, a dastardly plot and a daring escape (coupled with a stiff upper lip and rather attractive pencil moustache) are the order of the day as dashing hero, Richard Hannay, uncovers the secrets of The 39 Steps in this knockabout comedy.
Based on the book and the Hitchcock film of the same name (and with more than a few nods to the Hitchcock legacy, including a cameo from the man himself), The 39 Steps is a classic spy thriller which finds our hero, Richard Hannay, falsely accused of the murder of a seductive spy, leading him to go on the run to Scotland and to uncover a dastardly plot to smuggle secrets out of the country.
This playful, tongue in cheek production takes a gentle comedy sideswipe at the spy films of the 30’s and 40’s with a knowing smile and an approach which displays a genuine affection for the source material and the genre as a whole. But the twist with this production is that the 130 characters that adorn the stage are played by just four actors, who give a whistle stop tour of the major plot points and protagonists at breakneck speed.
In a style that is not too far removed from the deadpan delivery of the “Airplane” or “The Naked Gun” films and with just a hint of “The League Of Gentlemen” – the rapid delivery and scattergun approach to the stream of gags ensure that if you don’t find the last joke funny, there is another on the way in a few seconds. The cast play their roles with a completely straight bat, taking the narrative deadly seriously and seemingly oblivious to the chaos and ridiculousness that surrounds them.
The use of mime, limited props, quick change costumes and clever staging compel the audience to use their imagination to an extent, but by buying into the premise and presentation, the audience is well rewarded. It was hard to fault the physical performances of the cast who were clearly so well-rehearsed that the switching between characters was second nature; and who were all clearly thoroughly enjoying themselves on stage.
As with all comedy, not every joke hit the mark, but there was a fair balance of comments, actions or situations which led to a smile, a groan, a guffaw or a belly laugh. Despite a few of the repeated gags starting to nudge their way towards outstaying their welcome, the main criticism of the show was that it was sometimes difficult to hear the script, either as a result of quiet diction from the actors, the fast paced nature of the script or due to their indeterminable caricature accents, but these issues were soon passed and soon forgiven as the next comedic moment rolled along.
Happily, the show stays on the right side of silly fun, delivers a joke-per-minute ratio which far exceeds most productions over the course of the show’s 100 minute running time and rightly retains its reputation on its tenth anniversary tour.
The 39 Steps plays at Sheffield Theatres until 20th February 2016.