Life was almost simple for former secret agent Richard Hannay until he found himself embroiled in a plot of femme fatale fatalities, gentrified Nazis and strange Scottish hoteliers. After discovering an internal conspiracy to sneak national secrets to the Germans in 1935 Britain, Hannay sets out to uncover the perpetrators, clear himself of murder and stop those jolly rotter Nazis from finding good old Blighty's weaknesses.
Based on a novel by Scottish journalist, politician, diplomat, publisher and all around Renaissance man of the 1930s, John Buchan, this perfect piece of physical theatre is the thinking man's Naked Gun; a gripping and witty production which celebrates and castrates the detective and thriller genres, lovingly teasing the style of films such as North by Northwest and The Man Who Knew Too Much, remaining subtle in its execution yet splendidly slapstick.
But the play could not be a winner without its players. And what a hard worked quad they are, switching between about 40,000 characters (probably not an exaggeration) in the space of two hours. Richard Ede is suave and debonair as leading man Hannay, commanding as a RAF Commander and dashing in a way that the world has forgotten. Tony Bell and Gary MacKay, too, perform with energy and verve, exuding comedy as the incidental male characters required by the narrative, and Charlotte Peters is wonderful as every female stereotype of the era.
The play is especially resonant with a Scottish audience, who lap up its shortbread box stereotypes like a fine malt whisky served in a hollowed out haggis. This is "you'll have had yer tea"-atre and the Scottish subconscious, in all its closed-community eccentricities, are as exposed as a drunk groom in a kilt in Patrick Barlow's hilarious script.
It is a rare treat to sit in a theatre and feel like a child, entranced, delighted and quietly waiting for the next thrill. The style and stage craft of Maria Aitken's production is fantastically fresh and never fails to captivate, maintaining a strong pace in the narrative and giving its many, many characters room to grow and develop. You can practically hear the smiles creep across the audience's face and, like a nice, warm shower in Bates Motel, this is night at the theatre which never fails to surprise...
The 39 Steps is at the Theatre Royal, Glasgow, from 11 until 16 March, 2013.