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  • Writer's pictureAlex First

The 39 Steps (Hearth Theatre), at Chapel Off Chapel - 2 hours, plus a 20-minute interval

An adaptation of acclaimed film director Alfred Hitchcock’s 1935 movie The 39 Steps, Hearth Theatre’s production of the parody is riotously funny.

 

Patrick Barlow’s work from the 1915 novel by Scottish author John Buchan, brings slapstick humour to the mystery crime thriller … and it works b-e-a-u-t-i-f-u-l-l-y.

 

Single, handsome, 6 foot 1, 37-year-old Richard Hannay (Sorab Kaikobad) lives in a London flat and his life is drifting by.

 

Nothing means much to him anymore and he presents as a broken man.

So, on a whim, he decides to take in a night at the theatre.

 

That is when all hell breaks loose.

 

An exotic, thickly accented woman, Annabella Schmidt (Yvette Turner), who Richard doesn’t know, sits down beside him and fires a gun, causing panic.

 

Clearly fearful, she pleads with Richard to let her go home with him.

 

There, she is tells him she is being watched and followed.

 

She spins a yarn about secret agents and an Englishman she must visit in Scotland.

 

She utters the words “The 39 Steps”, but before Richard can find out what that means, she is dead.

Richard feels compelled to follow the thin lead Annabella gave him and high tails it to Scotland, with the police in hot pursuit.

 

With Richard the prime suspect in Annabella’s murder, Scotland Yard is not about to let up until they get their man.

 

Only there are far more sinister forces at play.

 

Requiring only four actors who tackle dozens of madcap characters with gusto, the original concept and production were the work of Simon Corble and Nobby Dimon.

 

The 39 Steps premiered in rural England in 1996, but Patrick Barlow rewrote the adaption we see at Chapel Off Chapel in 2005. It played continuously in the West End between 2006 and 2015.

That version won the Olivier Award for Best New Comedy in 2007 and two Tony Awards the following year. It is not hard to see why.

 

With references to other Alfred Hitchcock movies, besides The 39 Steps, it is witty and wacky.

 

The intrigue is there from the get-go. I yearned to get to the bottom of just what Annabella Schmidt was on about.

 

The 39 Steps is full of high paced action, with super quick changes involving costuming and wigs, being the order of the day.

 

Eloise Kent take a bow for the disparate costuming and utilitarian set design. What hits you when you enter the theatre are drop cloths, wooden boxes and ladders.

In what is creativity personified, the props – including those boxes and trunks, that double as forms of transport and even a bed – are frequently moved by the actors.

 

The performances are marvellous, from a cast that revels in the material with which it works.

 

The often exaggerated personas, which include changing vocalisation, are so well realised throughout.

 

In the thick of things are the two clowns, Charlie Cousins – who doubles as director of the piece – and Jackson McGovern.

 

They, alongside Sorab Kaikobad and Yvette Turner, give it their all (for, make no mistake, The 39 Steps is nothing if not frenzied) and leave nothing in the bank.

 

Turner plays the three women with which Richard Hannay has some form of romantic entanglement. The clowns fill every other role, save for Kaikobad’s and Turner’s.

Among the many highlights of a highlight rich show are the wind-blown scene aboard a train. So, too the pilots’ aerial pursuit of Hannay. Sheer genius, the both of them.

 

Music, sound effects and lighting also have a big role to play.

 

Justin Gardam and Niklas Pajanti, respectively, have excelled in their realisation of these critical production values that undoubtedly add impetus.

 

The 39 Steps is superb, off the wall entertainment – such a hoot and a major triumph for Hearth Theatre, which deserves every accolade for its endeavours.

 

It is playing at Chapel Off Chapel until 17th March, 2024.

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