Splendid, marvellous, wonderful: all words one can imagine tumbling from the moustache-laden mouth of the charming protagonist of The 39 Steps, Richard Hannay, and boy are they accurate to describe the deliciously witty adaptation of Alfred Hitchcock's comedy thriller, playing at The REP until Saturday.
Richard Ede is superb as a dapper and somewhat mischievous Hannay and lights up the stage from the moment he tells his lofty tale from what quickly becomes the relative comfort of the armchair at his London apartment.
Hannay is bored. No, he’s more than bored; he’s tired of the mundanity of his bourgeois life. That is until a chance encounter with mysterious German woman, Annabella Schmidt (Olivia Greene), puts him at the centre of something unmistakably not boring. And when Hannay’s time with Ms Schmidt is cut rather violently short he finds himself on the run and in the midst of a quest to discover the truth behind the mysterious 39 Steps.
What follows is far-fetched, farcical and bloody fantastic.
This is a four-man (or rather three-man and one woman) production, but it may as well be a cast of 20. One simply loses count of the number of hilarious comedic cameos duo Rob Witcomb and Andrew Hodges produce. One moment they’re a pair of nincompoops on a train, the next a theatrical performer and his unintentionally droll sidekick, the next a bedraggled Scottish couple, the next an even funnier bedraggled Scottish couple. It should be hard to keep track, especially when the two ingeniously transform before the audience’s eyes with nothing more than small costume changes and shifts in persona, but it’s a testament to the quality of their acting and the tightly choreographed production that it merely adds to its hilarity.
With these two at the helm and Olivia Greene chipping in with a number of equally comical cameos, most notably the painfully posh Pamela, the production is quite simply a tour-de-force of comedy acting and timing. It’s all aided with an ingenious use of scenery and props with more than a few gags bringing the audience right in on the action.
One scene, in which Hannay looks out of his window and Witcomb and Hodges, as two spies, run on downstage equipped with a lamppost each time he peeks behind the curtain, is just one example of the wonderful wit behind this adaptation.
“Oh there’s the telephone,” Hannay exclaims equipped with quizzical look to the audience in another scene, before the thing rings moments later. It’s another layer of comedy altogether, but one which sits so cleverly with the story itself.
Aided by slick scene changes and humour which never lets up; the story moves with pace and ever-increasing hilarity to its conclusion.
There’s only one criticism: it ends too soon. You just want this triumph of comedy theatre to go on and on.
The 39 Steps plays at The REP until 5 March.
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