June 23rd, 2008


39 steps to heaven

The 39 Steps
Oxford Playhouse, Monday 23 June 2008

For weeks now I've been meaning to go to the Playhouse to buy tickets for a whole raft of upcoming plays, but keep somehow forgetting, so it was fortunate that addedentry remembered that The 39 Steps was on tonight, and even more fortunate that we hadn't booked anything else to clash with it.

If you've read the book, go and see it. If you haven't read the book, go and see it. Really, the book is a re(a)d herring: go and see the play, because you're more or less guaranteed to enjoy it. The famous film is more or less a red herring too, though do look out for the sly Hitchcock references (including the inevitable Hitchcock cameo).

So what's it all about? For about an hour and a half the intrepid Richard Hannay (ably and hilariously supported by three quick-change actors) tears up and down the country from Scotland to the London Palladium (though really, they could have changed the theatre name for the touring version without any damage being sustained to the plot) trying to prove that he's not a murderer, and track down the dastardly villains, and put a stop to their evil plans to steal some top-secret documents, and save the country from CERTAIN WAR. Oh, and getting the girl probably wouldn't go amiss. Undaunted by dizzying manipulation of the scenery and occasionally deafening special effects, our hero maintains a stiff upper lip (adorned by a fetching pencil moustache) and manages several death-defying scrambles over, under and occasionally straight through the fourth wall.

If rousing tales of derring-do don't move you, really, it's worth seeing for the effects and scene-changes alone; the four actors manage all the props and scenery as well, seamlessly when necessary and self-referentially when it's funnier: everything from lampposts, windows and doors to trains, planes and automobiles. Forget Miss Saigon's helicopter, or Phantom's crashing chandelier (ooh, spoilers): The 39 Steps has not only a chase along the top of train carriages, but a biplane crash on stage! The actors themselves are excellent too, though, maintaining a blend of melodrama, farce and meta-theatre (which even manages to avoid too much do you see what we did there) that's so delightfully lively and joyous you can't help getting caught up, so to speak, in the action.

It's on at the Oxford Playhouse for the rest of the week; it's still on at the Criterion Theatre in London; go and see it!