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A joyfully silly high-speed adventure, packed with laughter

Updated: 4 days ago

REVIEW: The 39 Steps at New Theatre, Cardiff


There's another chance to join the plucky Richard Hannay in an epic adventure, as the multi award-winning comedy The 39 Steps returns to Cardiff. 

 

Patrick Barlow’s hilarious adaptation of Alfred Hitchcock’s classic spy thriller opened at the New Theatre last night (Tuesday 23 April), taking Hannay and us from London’s West End to the highlands of Scotland and back in the space of two hours.


A cast of four, playing multiple roles, rushes the story along in a production which is joyfully silly, yet still somehow respectful to its source material - the 1935 Alfred Hitchock film, based on John Buchan's 1915 novel.


Barlow (of the National Theatre of Brent fame) is the master of finding the comedy from an over-ambitious epic production with a small cast and minimal resources.


And The 39 Steps is a prime example - a grand adventure told with makeshift props and a whole bundle of imagination to create a chuckle-strewn show which has won Olivier and Tony awards, and has enjoyed box office success around the world for nearly two decades.


It's many years since I last saw it, and it still delights, with its briliantly choreographed physical humour and expert comic timing from a talented cast. Tom Byrne is perfect as Hannay, remaining straight-faced and stiff-upper-lipped, as his world and the stage around him appear increasingly chaotic.


It's 1935, and Hannay is back in London from working in the colonies and is getting used to a mundane life, until he's wrongly accused of murder, and his world is thrown into turmoil.


The story involves his frantic efforts to avoid the police and track down the German spies aiming to smuggle vital information out of the country.


It's a proper old fashioned ripping yarn, brilliantly performed by Tom Byrne in the lead role, Safeena Ladha as three beautiful and dynamic women he meets on the way, and Eugene McCoy and Maddie Rice playing everyone else - farmers, aristocrats, travelling salesmen, pipers, detectives, spies, railway guards, a milkman, a newspaper seller. And others I've forgotten - oh, yes: one is a memory man!


Much of its success also lies with the skill of the creative team - director Maria Aitken, tour director Nicola Samer, designer Peter McKintosh, lighting designer Ian Scott, sound designer Mic Pool, movement director Toby Sedgwick and casting director Abby Galvin. 


The film has been remade several times - notably with Kenneth Moore (1959), Robert Powell (1978) and Rupert Penry-Jones (2008) - but this stage version, played for laughs all the way, is modelled firmly on that 1935 Hitchcock original which starred Robert Donat.


Indeed, it's quite a homage to Hitch, with a string of visual and audible references to his other films. You may even catch a glimpse of the man himself in sillhouette.


This is a high-speed comedy adventure, packed with laughter and briliantly performed. Thoroughly recommended.


The 39 Steps plays at the New Theatre until Saturday (27 April). You can book tickets through the box office on 0343 310 0041 or online here.  If you're going to tomorrow (Thursday) evening's performance, you get the bonus of a Q&A session with members of the company afterwards.


Review by Andy Weltch

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