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The 39 Steps

Richard Earl, Patrick Bridgman, Jonny McPherson and Frances Marshall in The 39 Steps. Photo: Keith Pattison

Theatre By the Lake’s summer rep season usually includes a main house farce, which in recent years has ranged from showing its age (Rookery Nook) to inspired rediscovery (See How They Run). This year’s choice, though it has some sublimely farcical moments, is closer to the theatre’s Christmas shows – we know the story and want to see what the performers can make of it.

As with his design for 2013’s Swallows and Amazons, Martin Johns’ set morphs furniture (including several sets of steps, naturally) into props and back again as the actors play around, embodying the tone of the Buchan/Hitchcock original.

Though it is not always farcical, the play demands the intensely disciplined technique characteristic of farce and here director Abigail Anderson does very well to ensure one of the most focused and lively first nights seen at Keswick in recent years. Maura Guthrie’s sound design is both atmospheric and pacy. Patrick Bridgman and Richard Earl gleefully polish up and whisk into the spotlight a huge range of pre-war ‘character’ stereotypes, and there is a wonderful double act feel to some of their work together.

One of the challenges is keeping such virtuoso routines from submerging the story, and Jonny McPherson as Richard Hannay offers an effective pastiche of the bored clubland hero as a counterpoint. Frances Marshall, too, convincingly portrays love interest Pamela, as well as visibly enjoying the silliness of her other roles.

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West End staple provides Keswick with an ideal rep season opener