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The 39 Steps review at Tricycle Theatre London

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John Buchan’s classic spy adventure has already inspired three films and still proves a rattling good yarn, despite the irreverent treatment it receives in Maria Aitken’s playful new staging of Patrick Barlow’s tongue-in-cheek adaptation, first seen at the West Yorkshire Playhouse last year.

The show actually sticks closely to Hitchcock’s celebrated 1935 screen version of the tale, which itself introduced a sly humour and sexiness to the chaste and earnest original book. This means that when Buchan’s intrepid hero Richard Hannay goes on the run after being falsely accused of murder, he famously ends up handcuffed to a glacial blonde as he dodges the police and an international spy ring across the Scottish moors.

Charles Edwards plays things very straight as the unflappable hero. But as Hannay gets in and out of a succession of scrapes, there’s always a hint of humour – an eyebrow archly raised on a deadpan face. Opposite him, Catherine McCormack gets to embody the archetypal Hitchcock blonde but she also doubles up in a variety of wigs as a heavily accented femme fatale and a crofter’s forlorn wife.

Rupert Degas and Simon Gregor play all the other roles in the show and have tremendous fun impersonating everyone from underwear salesmen to railway porters and policemen. Among their many parts, Degas’ suave, supercilious chief villain stands out, while Gregor is splendidly po-faced as music hall performer Mr Memory.

The duo’s inspired clowning is a joy throughout the show, as is the consistently inventive recreation of fondly remembered scenes from Hitchcock’s movie, whether it be Edwards’ Hannay dangling off the Forth Bridge (conveyed by some dry ice and a horizontal ladder) or McCormack’s blonde seductively removing her suspenders and stockings while shackled to the fugitive. Admittedly, some scenes work better than others but as Aitken’s production races along from one gag to the next the odd brief longueur doesn’t impede the laughter for long.

Production Information

Tricycle Theatre, London, August 10-September 9

John Buchan, adapted by Patrick Barlow from an original concept by Simon Corble and Nobby Dimon
Maria Aitken
Charles Edwards, Catherine McCormack, Rupert Degas, Simon Gregor
Running time
1hr 50mins

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