The 39 Steps @ Criterion Theatre, London

cast list
Charles Edwards
Rachel Pickup
Rupert Degas
Simon Gregor

directed by
Maria Aitken
It is the burden, nay, the tragedy, dear reader, of the humble theatre reviewer to sit through large piles of tripe masquerading as entertainment, all in the service of assisting the theatregoing public with their show selection.

Occasionally, it is the privilege of that same reviewer to have the chance to marvel at a spectacle that the vast majority have yet to see. Then again, the focus on opening nights, on the shiny and new, can cause one to overlook those shows that are solidly doing there thing, drawing in audiences night after night, long after the critical buzz has died down.

The 39 Steps was initially reviewed here, and elsewhere, in September 2006. Joy, then, that with a change of cast, I get a second bite at the cherry and an opportunity to see this already critically lauded show for myself. The question then is – do our original observations need any modification, or has this tweak had no effect on this latest incarnation of the piece?

I will not prcis the plot once more – it would seem that that much at least has not changed. A lantern-jawed hero with a neat line in eyebrow acting (Charles Edwards) is still being pursued across Scotland for a crime he did not commit. Deadly femme fatales are still not standing by the hero unless shackled to him, and a carnival of exaggerated characters are still doing their best to help or hinder the chase, unwittingly or otherwise. And it’s still, it seems, an absolute hoot.

This is a delightfully inventive and original production. The production company, the National Theatre of Brent, is an absolute treasure, the British theatrical equivalent of a National Lampoon, producing comedy that outwits most humdrum farces by a chase-across-country mile. As has been written elsewhere, the company squeeze their comedy out of deliberately flawed attempts to tell epic stories on a micro-budget, a tradition that goes back, at least in the post-War period, as far as the Goons, and is no doubt a cultural by-product of the end of the British Empire (discuss).

The inventiveness of its staging would, of course, be nothing without a terrific cast to bring its make-do props to life, and Edwards as a proto-C.J., or possibly a young Michael Palin (there is very much a Ripping Yarns feel to the whole thing) is superb in his upper class twitdom. The “Clowns”, who provide much of the slapstick comedy, never miss a beat, Rupert Degas and Simon Gregor top-notch physical comedians both, and their comic deftness in the “you can see the strings” moments are beautifully done.

Which brings me neatly on to new cast member Rachel Pickup (who, trivia fans, is the daughter of Ronald Pickup from the 1978 remake of the film), a worthy successor, it would seem, to McCormack. Every inch the dangerous woman and there are many inches of her – she throws herself into the parts with a vibrant aplomb as she matches her co-stars’ comedy rhythms beat for beat and doesn’t let a reported illness on press night get the better of her.

I am being effusive since, when theatre is not teaching us a lesson, it should be enchanting us with its capacity for magic. That the production pauses to inhale now and again is something the Brent chaps might like to look at, as the comedy really works best when it is a breathless step ahead and lags when it allows the audience to catch up a bit. When it hits, though, it really hits, and it is this joy in imagination and performance that makes it an exceptional piece of theatre.

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