Theatre review: The 39 steps, Edinburgh

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THE 39 Steps has four actors playing 139 characters in 100 minutes. Quite how many Hitchcock gags are embedded in the script, however, is a question only opening stage act Mr Memory may be able to answer.

The King’s Theatre * * * * *

Based on James Buchan’s book but modelled more as a tribute to the 1935 Hitchcock film, The 39 Steps is a rollicking tongue and cheek ramble over moor and mountain from the back streets of London to a mysterious house in the remote Highlands.

The pace is steady and lead Richard Ede, as bumbling fugitive Richard Hannay, captures perfectly the wit, verve and slick mustachioed suave of a 30s action hero.

Playing opposite Charlotte Peters, as all the production’s female characters (the important ones, anyway), the pair have enticing on-stage chemistry and engaging comic repartee.

Tony Bell and Gary Mackay (who plays the lesser women’s parts beautifully) as Man and Man, respectively, support the couple with a series of exquisitely executed turns as the rest of the ensemble.

Their “quick change” scenes on the Edinburgh train platform and in a Highland hotel are charged with effortless timing and good natured buffoonery.

Adapted by National Theatre of Brent “founder” Patrick Barlow, there is a certain appreciation of the difficulties and joys of telling a comic story with a limited cast on display, many of the jokes emanating from the awkward situations the actors find themselves.

Director Maria Aitken has embraced the haphazard nature of the show, populating the stage with a great number of everyday props that double as a myriad of exciting components as the chase gathers momentum, from luggage boxes as train carriage tops, to unexpected car headlights hidden in a hotel room’s decor to a Forth Rail Bridge constructed with ladders.

Allowing space for the actors to really engage with the props, she has elicited many beautiful slapstick asides from her performers.

The 39 Steps is a daft, joyous romp through the sort of movie you’d sit down with on a rainy Sunday afternoon, but with the sublime addition of a mischievous sense of humour and a reviving glass of milk during the interval.

n Run ends Saturday.