Cast of The 39 Steps.
Review: The 39 Steps
York Theatre Royal, Tuesday 25th April 2008
After winning the Olivier Award for Best New Comedy in 2007, ‘The 39 Steps’ is taking its laugh-out-loud show to audiences everywhere. Jo Shelley headed to the theatre for a night of pure escapism.
It has spawned three films and now, more than 90 years after its first publication, John Buchan’s thriller has finally made it onto the stage. Yet despite the time it took to get here, 'The 39 Steps' – in York on its nationwide tour – feels anything but tired.
This is an absurdly funny and fast-paced play, working for laughs during every one of the 100 minutes that its four-strong cast race across the boards.
The cast of four play all the parts!
The plot is simple enough: the dashing Richard (David Michaels) is informed of a scheme to bring down the British government and soon he’s pursuing the truth while fleeing the conspirators – and a false murder charge. But other than the odd dramatic scream and Michael’s permanently cocked eyebrow, fear and intrigue are not what this production is about.
At one point, Richard longs to get away from it all by immersing himself in “something mindless and trivial. Something utterly pointless.” Suddenly, you can almost see the light bulb above his head flicker on. “I know!” he says. “I’ll go to the theatre!”
'The 39 Steps' is a joy to watch because it embraces the idea of theatre as pure and, to some extent, trivial escapism. The characters are truly and self-consciously retro, talking like the cast of a Carry On movie and with the 'Shock! Horror!' movements to match.
Richard himself is a cross between a modern-day, bumbling Hugh Grant and the upright, square-jawed British hero of the early 20th century. Clare Swinburne plays his trio of love interests, flitting between German seductress, young country-bumpkin and the prudish blonde that persists in trying to get him arrested.
The other two actors that make up the cast are constantly shifting identities, often taking on a number of characters in the same, seconds-long fragment of a scene. This requires them to switch hats and coats with amazing, delightful speed and their timing is spot-on. The results are – dare I say it – astounding, and on the opening night they earned a round of applause at the end of almost every comic turn.
The most pleasing aspect of the play, however, was the staging. The set is furnished sparsely but the characters improvise to transform chairs into cars, curtains into waterfalls and people into bushes. Watching one actor become a bog, a plant and a cleft in the rock – before being dismissed by a wet, muddy Richard – was one of the highlights of the night.
All in all, 'The 39 Steps' was the best thing that I’ve seen at the Theatre Royal this year.
last updated: 26/03/2008 at 14:59
Venue: York Theatre Royal
Dates: 25th March - 29th March 2008
Price: £10 - £19 - concessions available
Box Office: 01904 623568
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