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The 39 Steps (tour - Cambridge, Arts Theatre)

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
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How do you define "clever" in terms of a theatrical production – let alone "really clever"? Yet that's precisely what Patrick Barlow's multi-layered version of the Hitchcock film of John Buchan's The 39 Steps (keep up at the back, there!) is. What's more, it's clever-affectionate, and that's something which an audience laps up.

This is a new tour, re-cast from both the original and recent West End productions and re-directed by Lucy Skilbeck. Peter McKintosh's sets and costumes, Ian Scott's lighting and Mic Pool's syncopated sound design continue to play their important roles, but it's the performances which really make this show.

It's no denigration of either Richard Ede, who plays the archetypical stiff-upper-lipped reluctant hero Hannay, or of Charlotte Peters who takes on all the women with whom Hannay entangles himself – including a marvellous hommage to Madeleine Carroll – to say that Tony Bell and Gary Mackay as everyone else (of either sex, villainous or ludicrous) almost walk away with the entire show. Their timing, especially as the fast-talking travellers in ladies' lingerie, is impeccable and they give a new meaning to the song title "Underneath the lamplight" of Marlene Dietrich notoriety.

Barlow and original director Maria Aitken have incorporated some blink-and-they've-gone references to Hitchcock's other films, notably in the shadow-play sequence. I enjoyed this play the first time that I saw it. It seems to matured into something even more joyous and pleasurable this time round.


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