Review: The 39 Steps

Written by: Rachel Louise

Patrick Barlow’s adaptation of The 39 Steps is just brilliant.

In 100 minutes four actors perform 139 between roles between them. It’s very impressive and not once does it feel like there should be more cast members. Four made it all the more funny, and it added to the humour and made way for lots of gags.

Gary Mackay and Richard Ede in The 39 Steps

Gary Mackay (left) and Richard Ede in The 39 Steps. Photographer: Dan Tsantilis

The 39 Steps is about a chap whose boring and unhappy life is changed one fateful night. Richard Hannay (Richard Ede) gets himself innocently caught up in a bit of a to-do; assassins are after him after a sexy German spy told him of a secret plot about baddies trying to smuggle information out of the country. However, the spy is killed in his apartment, and Hannay dashes off to Scotland to foil the spies’ plans, but in doing so finds himself in all manner of chaos.

Two actors (Tony Bell and Gary Mackay) play several roles, including policemen, old men, old women, spies… the list goes on. They sometimes play two roles at the same time and inject a lot of comedy into the play. Effortlessly changing characters within seconds of eachother, their timing is great. Charlotte Peters plays three different roles, one of whom is Hannay’s love interest Pamela. In her different guises she is feisty, witty, funny and a fabulous accompaniment to the dashing hero Richard Hannay.

The set is simplistic but works very well; a show like this doesn’t need huge, expensive visuals. The actors conjur up scenery with the use of props – you believe that they are sat in a bumpy train carriage when they are just sat on boxes. With the mere flapping of a coat you believe the characters and dealing with blustery Scottish weather. From the use of slow-motion and shadow-puppetry, the staging is simple, fun and (most importantly) it works.

The 39 Steps doesn’t have the glitz and glamour many theatregoers are used to. Rather it relies on great acting, a hilarious script and imaginative direction. If only the marketing does more to alert people to the fact this adaptation of John Buchan’s 1915 book is played for laughs. It’s a thrilling and enjoyable ride from beginning to end.


This production was reviewed at the Marlowe Theatre, Canterbury.

Author: Rachel Louise

TV is my life. And movies. And theatre.

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