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REVIEW: The 39 Steps at Newcastle Theatre Royal

The 39 Steps

Newcastle Theatre Royal

Until Saturday 13 April 2024

A comedy with just 4 actors playing all the roles appears this week in Newcastle for the first time in 8 years. Imagine a parody of the 1935 Hitchcock movie that takes the tone of the period of the original 1915 John Buchan novel in a pacey and frequently hilarious way. 

Tom Byrne is the only actor to appear as a single character - the ever present Richard Hannay. Hannay is a idealistic upper-class twit who is bored and looking for adventure - think Hugh Laurie's Lieutenant George in Blackadder Goes Fourth. He decides to head to the West End to get some theatre action. Eugene McCoy  and Maddie Rice appear as Mr Memory and his side kick. He has memorised 50 new facts every day and he answers random questions from the audience. 

Hannay gets familiar with another audience member who randomly fires a gun in order to stop the show. Pamela is the first femme fatale performed by Safeena Ladha, and she requests retreating to Hannay's flat until the fuss blows over.

She introduces him (and indeed the theatre audience) to the concept of spies and the 39 steps before she is mysteriously stabbed in the back by person(s) unknown. Hannay then heads on train up to Scotland to try to protect the British intelligence without fully understanding what the 39 steps are.

In Patrick Barlow's adaption the absurdity of the situation is exploited to farce levels - which is good news for audience members looking a comedy full of laughs. The opening night audience seemed a little unsure at first - I did wonder if they knew the show is a comedy? You then have a potential issue that there will be younger members of the audience who have never watched any of the four movie adaptations on a wet Saturday afternoon on television. (A big assumption here, but do younger people watch scheduled tv anymore?)  

By the time the simple set of props are set up for the scenes of the train journey that the audience got an board with the nature of the show. This is a very light hearted take on a mystery story. Eugene McCoy  and Maddie Rice have to quickly work through numerous costume changes as they change characters at speed. Chuck in some regular references to Hitchcock more popular movies - and even an appearance of the man himself in silhouette - and you get a story that understands its source material. 

The fat is cut out of the story here - no need for a sweeping landscape shot when you are creating a theatrical comedy with minimalist props. Rather - rearrange the four seats into a car formation and pick up a steering wheel. Thus the show runs under two hours including interval. 

Set in 1935 there are some hints about the imminent future for the world. Hannay is on the run from both the police chasing him to discuss the dead body in his flat and from secret forces that are part of a world he cannot perceive. The innocent charm of Tom Byrne's character remains which is sweet. 

The cast, and crew, work really hard here. They have a lot of script and movement direction to get right - and they time each action to perfection. To that end the closest show on tour is possibly The Play That Goes Wrong - but that might be unfair comparison, as this is less about the cheap laughs. 

The 39 Steps is an entertaining romp featuring a talented cast that engage well with the audience. 

Review: Stephen Oliver

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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