Review: Riotous fun with The 39 Steps on Stratford stage

A comic triumph: The 39 Steps
A comic triumph: The 39 Steps

Nick Le Mesurier reviews The 39 Steps, presented by the Bear Pit Theatre Company at the Bear Pit Theatre, Stratford

Four actors. Dozens of parts. An escape from a moving train. A plane crash. A dastardly plot involving espionage, murder, escape and thrills and laughs galore. All on a small stage. How do they do it?

This stage version of The 39 Steps, which follows Hitchcock’s 1935 film version of John Buchan’s novel almost exactly, was first produced on a tiny budget. It went on to run for nine years in the West End and scooped numerous awards. It’s the perfect challenge for a theatre company with a well-deserved reputation for riotous comedy.

Tony Homer is well cast as Richard Hannay. He is a tall, handsome Englishman, somewhat louche and bored with life in the home country. By chance he gets mixed up in a fiendish plot that threatens national security. It all hangs on a mysterious music-hall routine involving Mr Memory, a sexy spy who is murdered in his bed, and a dodgy professor living in the Scottish highlands. Oh, and a pair of raincoated secret agents, a weird couple of hoteliers, farmers, and a milkman. That’s just for starters.

It could have been a disaster, but it’s a comic triumph, due to the old fashioned skills of a great acting, split-second timing, superb stage-craft, and utterly reliable directing. Carol Roache switches from sexy vamp Annabella Schmidt to wifely Pamela to frustrated farmer’s wife Margaret with ease. Natalie Danks-Smith and Roger Ganner are simply breathtaking as the two clowns who play the majority of the parts. To pick a favourite of their roles would be like picking a favourite chocolate from a box: hard to do but very pleasurable.

The first night was sold out, and if you want an evening of amazement and fun you’d better hurry to get a ticket before the run is over.

* The play runs until May 19. Call 01789 403416 to book.