Take steps to see this spiffing good ripping yarn

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The 39 Steps, Stephen Joseph Theatre, until August 23

Cod accents, dry ice, silent movie slapstick, music hall melodrama, circus skills and sparring silliness combine in the revival of The 39 Steps, writes Sue Wilkinson.

First performed by North Country Theatre, it was transformed into a West End smash by Patrick Barlow.

This is the first time the play has been done in the Round and the first time with a 50/50 gender split.

The piece is based on John Buchan’s novel, published 1915, and Alfred Hitchcock’s film, released in 1935, with Robert Donat and Madeliene Carroll.

Both are about a man fighting an enemy which threatens peace and a way of life he treasures. The film, a classic of British cinema,is held in high regard and affection.

Barlow has been astute – his stage version retains all the elements – escape from a steam train, a chase across the Highlands and a manhunt conducted by car and plane – the film is loved for.

It is a spoof – one done with an affection for and knowledge of the source. Think Daisy Pulls It Off meets the Play That Goes Wrong.

The play also uses the opening of the book where its bored hero – Richard Hannay – is reflecting on the emptiness of his life, both in business and relationships.

It then takes up the film where Hannay meets a spy at a London music hall, takes her home where she is murdered and being the only suspect he goes on the run.

So begins a Boys’ Own adventure involving spies, heavies, politicians, Highland crofters, pilots, landed gentry and hoteliers.

To describe how the four-strong cast bring this thriller to life would be to spoil the anticaption and then the execution.

Safe to say it is all there – steam trains, sheep on the road, car journey, a plane and all – in inventive, fast-moving, clever, breath-taking theatre-scope.

Director Paul Robinson, as he did with The Rise and Fall of Little Voice last year, uses all the auditorium with a cleverness which in one way is obvious and, in another inspired. He gives the cast and his audience the right run around

Sam Jenkins-Shaw is bemused, confused, clipped and stiff-upper lipped as the handsome Hannay.

Amelia Donker shows physical comedy skills and verbal virtuosity as the foreign spy Annabella, the Scottish crofter’s wife Margaret (played by Peggy Ashcroft in the film) and the prim and proper Pamela.

Laura Kirman and Niall Ransome play all the other 100 or so parts between them – again to describe how would be to take away the sheer joy of their transformations.

They can turn into a char lady and milkman at the drop of a hat.

They work together like comedians of the silent movie era – Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd and Laurel and Hardy.

The timing of all the actors is immaculate, their skill at containing the comedy so it does not runaway into chaos is genius.

It is a comedy with heart and soul – it’s a love story and a cry for a better world.

There is so much to enjoy including Simon Slater’s original score with its references to other Hitchcock movies (the script does the same).

One of the stand-out pieces was his music hall song. Flanagan and Allen would have been happy to sing it.

This is the first play of the summer season at the Stephen Joseph and gets it off to an hilariously, spiffingly good, racy, pacy start.

It runs in rep until August 23.

Tickets for The 39 Steps are available on 01723 370541 or visit the website: www.sjt.uk.com