The 39 Steps Review

Festival Theatre, Malvern – until 18th May 2024

Reviewed by Courie Amado Juneau


Everyone knows The 39 Steps, the Hitchcock classic from 1935, right? This is a stage adaptation of that – well, nearly: it’s a comedic take on the original that pays homage to it whilst feeling remarkably modern.

The opening scene introduces Richard Hannay (Tom Byrne) wallowing in his terminal boredom until the notion of a trip to the theatre hits him. A decision that unleashes epic repercussions. Mr Byrne has just the one role but it’s a corker! He portrays the dashing, (at first) reluctant hero with a zest that’s truly infectious – giving us just the right combination of exasperation, romance, fear, grit and determination that the character demands. His timing was exemplary with a marvellously deft slapstick touch; especially his athleticism extricating himself from under corpses and quick window escapes.

Safeena Ladha gave us three beautifully fleshed out characters – from the wonderfully exotic Annabella with her hilariously impenetrable German accent and flamboyant death scene, Margaret’s naive dreamy romantic and Pamela, who Hannay understandably falls in love with. Ms Ladha showed a depth and range that was commendable. A talented actress providing the dramatic (i.e. straight) gravitas the play needed alongside her fair share of the comedy.

What to say about Eugene McCoy and Maddie Rice (billed as Clown 1 and 2 respectively)? They had so much to do, in so many different areas, that the mind boggled. Basically, they played every other role. Accents you could use to grate cheese, quick fire costume changes (especially hats) and tearing around the stage like a young Mick Jagger all left one reeling in giddy delight. The term “small but perfectly formed” has never been more true than of this sensational cast.

The stage scenery was a masterclass in creating a whole world with very little whilst utilising the actors physicality. Conjuring a train with a few boxes and some lighting was a good example of this! There’s a hilarious chase across the train roof which I particularly enjoyed. Evoking the moors was another highlight – especially being caught on the gorse bush. I won’t spoil the surprise with what happens (because it’s superb) but the chase involving planes and an extra special local celebrity guest appearance was hilarity personified.

With all this tomfoolery going on it was remarkable that our two “leads” managed to create a genuinely believable couple and their burgeoning romance was perfectly pitched and stylishly unfurled. Kudos to them and director Maria Aitken. The radio announcer (acting very much as narrator) was another highlight – especially his running commentary on Hannay’s moustache.

Some lovely in jokes with and name-dropping of many Hitchcock works will keep all fans of the Master of Suspense chuckling and nodding knowingly. My favourite was the Psycho music which is always a pleasure to hear.

This is a joyous romp through this classic that is guaranteed to tickle the most jaded tastebuds and is just the ticket to bring some much needed sunshine into a year sadly lacking thus far in that area. Worth watching just for the Mr Crocodile scene alone. Lovers of suspense, comedy and, well, love will love this production. Catch this show while you can, you won’t regret it. Essential viewing.