Rachel Pickup, who has now joined the four-strong cast of Patrick Barlow’s comedy take on John Buchan’s classic spy thriller, fits in perfectly to the mad-cap world in which a dashing London chap finds himself in rather a tight spot after a chance encounter leads to him becoming a murder suspect, forcing him to go on the run to the Scottish highlands and expose a spy ring to clear his name. Crikey!

Based primarily on the celebrated 1935 Hitchcock film version of the novel, Pickup, who took over the role(s) from Catherine McCormack, plays the femme fatale, the timid wife of a Scottish farmer and love interest Pamela with aplomb. She is by turns comic and winsome.

The versatility of the quartet is well demonstrated, with an array of quirky characters – from policemen and inn keepers to theatre performers and spies - portrayed to tell the entire story between them. “Clowns” Rupert Degas and Simon Gregor in particular are masters of the quick change, adopting a range of guises and accents at – literally - the drop of a hat. Meanwhile, Charles Edwards as hero and all-round-good-sport Richard Hannay, is master of the ironic arched-eyebrow.

Under Maria Aitken’s direction, the company never quite trips over into the completely ridiculous, while gently mocking the genre with comic effects reminiscent of Victoria Wood’s spoof soap Acorn Antiques - particularly in one scene in which Hannay declares “I say, that’s the telephone…” and then it rings.

The 39 Steps is good, wholesome fun, and a showcase of ingenuity as every scene from the movie is played out with the help of just a few move-able doors, chairs, windows and boxes. And it’s a jolly good yarn, to boot.

- Caroline Ansdell

NOTE: The following FOUR STAR review dates from August 2006 and this production's original dates at the Tricycle Theatre.

In 1914 Scottish diplomat John Buchan wrote a spiffing spy story with an upright, jolly English top-drawer hero. Problem was, there was no love interest, no gel for good egg Richard Hannay to call his own when he (inevitably) triumphed over Evil in the persons of some dastardly Johnny foreigners. Along came Alfred Hitchcock, who introduced a lovely lady heroine and sent our man all over the Highlands handcuffed to her in a black-and-white film classic.

There have been two more movies of the same name since, but Patrick Barlow’s play (first seen in this manifestation at West Yorkshire Playhouse last summer) is a chuckling homage to the 1935 Hitchcock version which starred Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll.

The upper-class hero who dresses in immaculate tweeds and lives in a chaste flat with the oak-and-leather decor of a gentlemen’s club looks so alien to us that we are ready to be taken on a hilarious rollercoaster send-up. Director Maria Aitken and her cast do not disappoint.

Charles Edwards’ Hannay - certain that to be white, male and English confers natural superiority - exudes sincerity, charming manners and perfectly groomed good looks (complete with pencil moustache) mixed with public school gaucheness. One eyebrow arches periodically to introduce a smidgen of irony into the proceedings as he runs along the roof of a train, coat tails flapping, adlibs an address at a political meeting or fights through the Highland fog with never a hair out of place.

Catherine McCormack plays the blonde heroine, Pamela, but also a pig-tailed Scottish crofter’s wife and a mysterious dark-haired woman with an impenetrable accent who, having warned Hannay of the wicked plot, expires with a knife in her back. McCormack manages them all with elegance and wit. Both actors retain an essential period style and avoid undermining the joke with nudge-nudge knowingness.

And everyone else - villains, policemen, bowler-hatted travellers, Hannay’s cleaner, the chief baddie’s wife, hotelkeepers, a milkman, a crofter, the professional memory man who is the keeper of the secret and dozens more - are all played by two marvellously quick, funny, versatile performers billed as “clowns”, Rupert Degas and Simon Gregor, who deserve medals for speed-changing.

Barlow (founder of the National Theatre of Brent), movement director Toby Sedgwick, Aitken and the company tell the story at a tremendous lick, with little more than moveable door and window frames, well-placed ladders and enormous quantities of dry ice. In the end, this isn’t so much a send-up of cinema as a glorious celebration of theatre.

- Heather Neill