Review: The 39 Steps, Everyman Theatre, Cheltenham
THERE'S nothing quite like popular theatre. It can send you away thrilled by a thriller, doubled-up with slapstick laughter, intrigued by mystery, still smiling at witty invention or warmed through by true romance.
And then there's The 39 Steps, which does all five simultaneously and makes them all believable. In short a fast-moving, exhilarating hoot from start to finish and an assured remedy to winter blues.
John Buchan's original spy melodrama dates from 1915. Hitchcock's classic 1935 film warmed it up, and this - Patrick Barlow's 2005 comic adaptation, brings it to the boil.
Barlow takes delightful liberties whilst retaining the main plot. 37 year old Richard Hannay, a world-weary colonial adrift in London, is not bored for long.
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A dark enchantress requests his help, but soon there's a dagger in her back. Accused of murder he pursues a dastardly German plot and is himself pursued across the Scottish Highlands. Oh and as a minor handicap – he's handcuffed to a beautiful girl.
Pace, timing and invention never flag and the cast of four are faultless. Richard Ede lends Hannay a welcome touch of Basil Fawlty..Charlotte Peters is haughty then winsome, and Gary Mackay and Tony Bell produce a cast of thousands, often several at a time.
Scenery and props are snatched from nowhere. Shadow puppets mock or drive on the action. A car is four chairs and a thrown-in steering wheel, and an illuminated sheet is a waterfall producing an additional joke - a silhouetted stabbing knife to a snatch of Psycho shower-scene music.
As the splendid hamming-up rolls on, often to an imaginative musical score, you're left in wonder at the precision of jokes about bad effects, as a telephones rings too late, or a body is caught up in the closing curtain.
Indeed it's a superb team effort from director Maria Aitken, designer Peter McKintosh, movement director Toby Sedgwick, lighting designer Ian Scott, sound designer Mic Pool and the whole technical crew.
And if you've seen it before, go again. It's endlessly repeatable.