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The 39 Steps - Criterion Theatre (review)

Review by Lizzie Guilfoyle

MUCH has already been written about The 39 Steps, Patrick Barlow’s adaptation of the John Buchan classic which is currently playing at the Criterion Theatre – most of it complimentary – so I doubt there’s anything more I can add.

Besides, not only has the production won a coveted Olivier Award for Best Comedy, it has just celebrated its fourth birthday in the West End. All of which suggests that it’s well worth seeing.

Well, just for the record, it is but if you expect a theatrical version of any of the films – and there have been several – then you’ll be disappointed, for Barlow’s adaptation is first and foremost a comedy.

Even so, under Maria Aitken’s direction, it includes those scenes we’ve come to know and love – the chase on the Flying Scotsman, the escape on the Forth Bridge, the bi-plane crash and the death-defying finale in the London Palladium; there’s even that legendary ‘stockings and suspenders’ scene.

The question is: how do they manage to depict such epic feats on the narrow confines of a West End stage?

I could, of course, give the whole thing away and tell you the ‘whys and wherefores’ but I’m not going to. Suffice to say that it’s very cleverly done with props and some ingenious improvisation, plus an excellent cast who work together as though they were born to it and whose comic timing is absolutely spot on.

What’s even more surprising is that the cast consists of just four actors who, between them, play more than 139 roles in the relatively short space of 90 minutes. That’s no mean feat, particularly as events unfold at a cracking pace.

So it’s hats off to the present incumbents – David Bark-Jones as intrepid hero, Richard Hannay; Dianne Pilkington as Annabella Schmidt, Pamela and Margaret; and Timothy Speyer and Jeremy Swift as just about everyone else.

But wait a minute – I did say four actors, didn’t I? So, when Hannay and Co are all clearly visible on stage, who fires that fatal shot at the London Palladium? It’s all part of the fun and guaranteed to put a smile on even the glummest face.

Well, I think I’ve said enough – especially for someone who thought there was nothing left to say – so I’ll leave it to you. Just go along to the Criterion Theatre, sit yourself down and enter the crazy world of The 39 Steps. And yes, I know I haven’t explained the meaning of those 39 steps but that’s not my style. It’s for you to find out….

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