Review: The 39 Steps – Grand Opera House, York

Olivier Award-winning Comedy “The 39 Steps” has come to York as part of a tour celebrating the show’s 10th anniversary. Having seen films and TV dramatisations of this story, I was hoping that this production wouldn’t focus too much on exposition of the plot, and that the comedy would have decent writing, staging and acting. My hopes were fully satisfied: it was a must-see, especially for those who have an interest in writing or directing plays.

The writing was tremendous. Quick-paced, quick-witted dialogue is one thing, but what this production excelled at was the way in which it played on being a play. The tagline of “4 Actors, 130 Characters in 100 Hilarious Minutes” was evident, and used humorously: the aforementioned four were often actors-cum-stagehands, rushing about with props and set pieces; they themselves became props.

39 Steps at York's Grand Opera House. Pictured outside York Minster are Richard Dee as Hannay and Olivia Green who plays Annabella, Pamela and Margaret in the production. Picture David Harrison.
39 Steps at York’s Grand Opera House. Pictured outside York Minster are Richard Ede as Hannay and Olivia Greene who plays Annabella, Pamela and Margaret in the production. Picture David Harrison.

There was a fair deal of breaking the fourth wall and emphasising the idea that the play had been thrown together at the last minute. Of course, in reality it was meticulously staged, timing being the key to a number of the jokes in the play, such as the abrupt start and stop of canned applause, or the moment when a smoke machine jumped into action after a character declared they could “barely see for the fog.” A number of references to Hitchcock, who directed a film version of “The 39 Steps” in 1935, are deliberately signposted in the play, making me grin a little.

As for acting, the lead role of Richard Hannay, played by Richard Ede, was excellent from start to finish. He managed to mix pathos with bravado in just the sort of way needed for an archetypal British hero, and he seemed a natural for the part. Olivia Greene, playing multiple different romantic interests of Hannay’s, performed well also; though she couldn’t shine as much as Ede, due to the nature of her roles – more mock-ups of female characters of the era than multi-dimensional comedic characters. This was in some ways a positive rather than a criticism, as the play showed an awareness that in a modern-day setting almost all the characters seem outmoded, and played on that fact with aplomb.

39 Steps at York's Grand Opera House. Pictured outside York Minster are Richard Dee as Hannay and Olivia Green who plays Annabella, Pamela and Margaret in the production. Picture David Harrison.
39 Steps at York’s Grand Opera House. Pictured outside York Minster are Richard Ede as Hannay and Olivia Greene who plays Annabella, Pamela and Margaret in the production. Picture David Harrison.

The two other cast members, Andrew Hodges and Rob Witcomb, were the real stars of the show, if only for the demands upon them. They played almost all the characters barring Hannay, and their comedic timing had to be spot on, cutting between characters regularly. Some of their characters were genuinely amusing, such as a speaker at a political rally, played by Witcomb, who is barely audible, laughing to himself at his squeaked lines.

A quick nod to the set and sound design also; a particular scene using a translucent screen and lights to create shadows was particularly nice to watch, and the use of sound throughout was well done.

All in all, I thoroughly enjoyed the performance, and would encourage those who read this and are in York at the moment to pop in to the Grand Opera House for one of the performances. You won’t regret it!

“The 39 Steps” runs from Monday 14th to Saturday 19th March at Grand Opera House, York. Evenings at 7.30 p.m. Matinees: Wed 16th & Sat 19th at 2.30 p.m.

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Ben McElroy