The 39 Steps King’s Theatre

When Alfred Hitchcock adapted John Buchan’s The 39 Steps for what is surely the definitive film version, he took a number of liberties with the tale, not the least of which was introducing a love interest for hero Richard Hannay. (Unusually for a writer, Buchan is reputed to have agreed the Hitchcock’s changes improved it). But these are as nought compared to what Patrick Barlow has done here, converting a ripping yarn into one of the most hilarious pieces of theatre I’ve seen in many a long year.

Hannay is played by Richard Ede – possessed of the stiffest upper lip ever and “really quite attractive” as the police bulletins have it – while Charlotte Peters plays Pamela, Margaret and Annabella. The other 135 parts are taken by Tony Bell and Edinburgh’s own Gary Mackay, which means an evening of lightning costume changes and an ability to jump between a bewildering array of characters and accents that these two guys manage without missing a beat.

Let me confess right now that I’m still laughing as I write – random memories come to mind at random times (I probably got some odd looks on the bus today) at this sublime mixture of slapstick and cracking one-liners. The script also pays homage to Hitchcock with a fair number of his film titles finding their way into the conversations, a “shower” scene and even an appearance by the man himself at one point.

There is extremely inventive use made of minimal props; the Forth Bridge is portrayed by a ladder stretched between two sets of stepladders, three trunks become a railway carriage and most rooms are created using only a door, a window and a couple of chairs.

But as they say, timing is everything, and it’s to the credit of the cast that throughout this whirlwind of a show all four are impeccable. Even the occasional deliberately mistimed cue works to perfection.

It’s not often I unreservedly recommend something as being an evening to suit everyone, but this is as close as you’ll get. I’d go so far as to say that you should not miss this if you enjoyed Buchan’s novel, and you should certainly see it if you did not.

Jim Welsh