The 39 Steps (Tour – Oxford)

Monday’s opening night of Fiery Angel’s production of The 39 Steps at the Oxford Playhouse saw the theatre positively overflowing with a cheerfully contented audience who left feeling they’d been thoroughly entertained. This is the fourth time the show has visited Oxford, and it’s still packing in the crowds – and it’s not hard to see why.

Patrick Barlow’s play is an adaptation of Hitchcock’s classic film, which was in turn (loosely) based on John Buchan’s novel. The piece manages an impressive balancing act. On the one hand it’s a lively comedy romp in which four actors play dozens of roles, with much inventive use of props, rapid changing of hats, and more than the occasional silly accent.

On the other, it’s also a genuinely suspenseful thriller – with a dollop of romance thrown in for good measure. For Hitchcock fans, there’s a good crop of in jokes (including a cameo appearance by the famous director himself, if you keep your eyes peeled).

Richard Ede is suitably dashing as hero Richard Hannay, the innocent man who gets caught up in a spy ring’s plot to smuggle top secret information out of the country – but who nevertheless maintains his stiff upper lip and debonair charm throughout a nail-biting chase to Scotland and back again. Charlotte Peters is a glorious complement to him as the various women he meets – all, of course, stunningly beautiful – she brings a freshness and a vulnerable grace (not to mention a feisty spirit and a healthy dose of wit) to the roles that is a delight to watch.

And Tony Bell and Gary Mackay pull off an awe-inspiring feat of endurance and quick-change wizardry as everyone else. Part of the genius of the piece is that they make it look so easy, when a moment’s thought is enough to tell you that the tour de force of skill, artistry and split-second timing that this is must be anything but.

It’s a fabulous, fun, frenetic piece that succeeds because it never takes itself too seriously, and always takes the story just seriously enough. Buy a ticket: you won’t be disappointed.

– Meriel Patrick