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Interview: The 39 Steps at Newcastle Theatre Royal


Dramatic, Suspenseful And Riotously Funny – The 39 Steps Visits Newcastle Theatre Royal

The 39 Steps

Newcastle Theatre Royal

Tuesday 9 – Saturday 13 April 2024


For the first time in eight years, the Tony and Olivier Award-winning comedy, The 39 Steps, is to tour the UK, where Newcastle Theatre Royal will be the first stop outside of London.

John Buchan wrote the book in 1915 and Alfred Hitchcock turned it into a classic spy film in the 1930s, but the producer of the stage version of The 39 Steps Edward (Ed) Snape of Fiery Angel Productions feels, despite being set in 1935, the story very much resonates today.

He smiles. "But the best thing of all is that this version is a comedy and I think people want that more than ever now. They want to laugh. It's a story with suspense and drama but also absurd, wonderful comedy."

Patrick Barlow, who did the play’s side-splitting adaptation and whose acting credits include Shakespeare in Love, Notting Hill, Bridget Jones’s Diary, Nanny McPhee, A Very English Scandal and Why Didn’t They Ask Evans?, feels theatregoers will also relate to the hero Richard Hannay, saying: "He has a realisation of what a dangerous world we're in and that we have to be really careful of people bullying us, totalitarian states and so on. That might make it sound deadly serious but I hope it's also riotously funny. It's madcap and very fast-moving but with heart."

The play has toured to 39 countries and played to more than three million people around the world.

"It's hard to come up with countries that we haven't visited," Ed says proudly. "At one point it was the most performed play in North America in one year apart from Shakespeare. That's pretty cool, isn't it? And it's something that you can bring anyone to, from age eight to 80."

At the centre of the story is the stiff-upper-lipped, gung-ho, pencil-moustached everyman Hannay, who is mistakenly drawn into a world of dastardly murders, double-crossing secret agents and devastatingly beautiful women as he flees for his life. One of the many clever twists is that Hannay is an innocent man on the run from the bad guys. "They're the villains, not him," Patrick points out.

Ed agrees, "Here is a man who feels the world is against him and he's got to prove his innocence. He thinks of himself as unlovable, then he falls in love and finds that actually he is lovable."

There's another clever twist to the production: one actor plays Hannay while three other performers take on the 139 characters swirling around him. Barlow, who acts as well as writes, marvels: "I have watched from backstage and the actors rush on and off, bang into each other, props are taken off and props are brought on. It's done very, very fast and everybody is acting very seriously as if they know exactly what they're doing, which isn't always the case. The joke is they're always a bit thrown by the next scene."

Snape laughs. "And the audience is on the edge of their seats wondering not only about the story and the spy thriller, but also how on earth these four actors are going to do all of this in one evening. And that's the joy of The 39 Steps - the spectacle of it all and four actors doing the near-impossible."

It retains the 1930s setting and costumes and features some of the original score from the Hitchcock film. "So you're transported into it as if you're actually living in a movie," says Patrick of a play that also includes a few nods to other films directed by the Master of Suspense. "I'm not going to say what they are but, if you're a Hitchcock buff and you see the show, you'll spot them for sure."

How does Patrick balance comedy with suspense in the script? "Well, as long as both engines are running, as long as there are some really funny moments and funny lines in it and as long as it really is genuinely, nail-bitingly scary, which this definitely is, then that's how we keep the balance going."

The production hasn't toured the UK since 2016 and Ed believes the timing is just right for its return. He smiles again. "As I say, more than ever we want to laugh, and I guarantee The 39 Steps will deliver on that promise."

Photos: Mark Senior



The 39 Steps plays Newcastle Theatre Royal Tuesday 9 – Saturday 13 April 2024. Tickets can be purchased at or from the Theatre Royal Box Office on 0191 232 7010.

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