Review: 39 Steps

TOBY JONES thinks more theatre should be like this show and about having a good time.

39 Steps Cambridge Arts Theatre Katherine Kingsley Maria Aitken Toby Jones West end

7.45 (2.30 matinees on Saturday and Thursday) – Monday 25th – Saturday 30th at The Cambridge Arts Theatre. £10-30.

****and a half stars

I must admit I was a little wary as I took my seat in the arts theatre on Monday night. I very much enjoyed the Hitchcock film of ‘The 39 Steps’ which I had comfortably compartmentalised under ‘classic British spy film’ and ‘good one to watch in your underwear while hung over on Boxing Day.’ When I heard about a comic version of ‘The 39 Steps’ on the stage, I must admit I was sceptical and I certainly wasn’t expecting to come out of it with a smile on my face, at least, not for the right reasons. Yet smile and laugh I did, rather a lot actually. In fact, I would actually go so far as to say that ‘The 39 Steps’ is an utterly brilliant piece of theatre.

‘How does one make a classic film work on the stage?’ Answer: ‘Simple, take the piss.’

As we all know too well the world is full of theatre that takes itself too seriously and Cambridge is hardly short of actors that do the same. Maria Aitken has no time for any such pretentious nonsense in her production and her four actors waste no time on self indulgent melodrama, this play is self aware from the off and gets straight to the business of telling the story in the most entertaining way possible. Dugald Bruce-Lockhart does an outstanding job of demonstrating the caricature of Richard Hannay; well dressed, well spoken and damned good looking throughout, it really is a joy to watch. (He also deserves congratulations on his excellent pencil moustache and his well pressed tweed, neither of which ceased to look utterly dashing at any point during the production.) Katherine Kinglsey does a wonderful job of playing gorgeous woman after gorgeous woman (such parts, methinks come naturally to her). Yet the real highlight of the play has to be Richard Braine and Dan Starkey’s performances as ‘Man’ and ‘Man’ who quite literally play every character in the play that isn’t an attractive woman or Richard Hannay. Braine and Starkey, reduced me to fits of laughter as they changed effortlessly from dour scotch hoteliers, to detectives, to spies, to policemen often all within one section of dialogue. (Does it make me sound unsophisticated if I say that there is very little funnier than watching a short, fat bald man playing middle aged Scottish women?)

Only that afternoon had I been told by an ADC rep that in their opinion any theatre which did not encourage the audience to empathize with the characters was in some way illegitimate. ‘The 39 Steps’ proves very forcefully that theatre with silly caricatures and imaginative stage design is so much fun both for the audience, and the actors. Cambridge Directors and actors ought to take note of this master class in stylised storytelling. Imaginative, tongue in cheek theatre is something that Cambridge student theatre most certainly needs more of, there are those that try (Max Barton and his ‘Midsummer Nights Dream’ is one excellent example) but most are content with the stuffy, somewhat pretentious status quo. The thespians of Cambridge should take a trip down to the arts theatre and open their eyes to this highly entertaining, unpretentious, style of theatre.

‘The 39 Steps’ may not be much of a tear jerker, and it won’t have you thinking profound things about the state of human nature. But this play is not meant to make you do that, this is just great fun. See it.