The 39 Steps review

the 39 steps

John Buchan’s Richard Hannay is the epitome of a British hero with his (very attractive) pencil moustache, a stiff upper lip, dashing demeanour, and courage under fire. He’s also a bit of a wow with the ladies.

So he’s ripe for parody. Patrick Barlow’s West End hit, The 39 Steps, has finally relinquished its home in the West End after 10 glorious award-winning years, and is now on a new national tour, currently garnering standing ovations and tears of laughter at Northampton’s Royal & Derngate Theatre.

This rip-roaring adventure yarn encapsulates all the valour and heroism of Buchan’s novel and, more importantly, the classic Alfred Hitchcock film, but is adapted for modern audiences with inventive and inspired originality.

There’s a cast of four playing 130 characters in a thrilling tale of derring-do, spies and wartime heroics, and one of the quickest costume changes ever staged. Literally, blink and you will miss it.

The 39 Steps tour 2016 - Rob Witcomb as Man 1 & Richard Ede as Hannay - Photo by Dan Tsantilis

While Richard Ede sparkles as our charismatic hero it is left to the superb Andrew Hodges and Rob Witcomb to exhaustively immerse themselves in one character after another – and they’re as diverse as a pair of bowler-hatted undies’ salesmen to a gorse bush (yes, really!).

All are believable and beautifully created, in an instant, in what is a clever and ingeniously told production directed with unquestionable flair (originally) by Maria Aitken and, on tour, by James Farrell.

With the aid of handfuls of props, hats particularly, the pair whirl through scenes as Nazis, Scottish yokels, spies, cops, paperboys and vaudeville artists. It makes your head spin trying to keep up.

The fourth cast member, Olivia Greene, plays three female roles with considerable style. Her femme fatale, Annabella, is stunningly beautiful, is straight out of Hitchcock’s central casting for evil and mysterious German spies, and far removed from her supporting role as Margaret the crofter’s wife.

the 39 steps

Later her cut-glass diction as the feisty heroine, Pamela, is reminiscent of Celia Johnson or any number of English leading ladies of the 1930s and ‘40s. Will she fall for the charm and swagger of our hero, Hannay, as he flees from the law, hunts spies in the Scottish Highlands and saves Britain from tyranny? Or will the icy blonde give the game away?

The production pays homage to some of Hitch’s other great classics, including North By Northwest, Vertigo, and Psycho (there’s even a familiar cameo by the film director) but the success of this super comedy lies in Barlow’s reinvention of the Boy’s Own adventure.

For the anoraks among you neither the stage play, or the three films spawned since the book was published 100 years ago, bear any resemblance to John Buchan’s original story – which is probably a good thing.

Instead we have a thrilling and entertaining comedy that breathlessly and imaginatively takes us from a dingy London flat, to the London Palladium, on a chase by train to the Highlands, and a showdown on a laird’s estate – all in 100 minutes. Impeccable.

The 39 Steps runs on the Royal stage until this Saturday before continuing its national tour. For tour dates go to

Review Rating
  • The 39 Steps


Inventive, ingenious & hysterically funny. Patrick Barlow has reinvented John Buchan’s Boy’s Own adventure, The 39 Steps, into a rip-roaring comedy thriller.

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