The 39 Steps, Theatre Review, Lyric, March 6th, 2019
By Conor O’Neill
‘Fated to be mated with the man she hated’ states the 1930s’ era poster that greets the full main theatre at Belfast’s Lyric Theatre. In smaller font just below, ‘The most charming brute who ever scorned a woman’. And so we enter the world of Richard Hannay (Michael Johnston). A suave, sophisticat, neither married or with much of a care in the world.
It’s 1935, war threatens yet again and Richard decides a night at the theatre is best to take his mind off these troublesome yet boring times. There’s an old Chinese curse which reads something like, ‘May you live in interesting times’. Over the next two hours of theatre time, maybe three days of fictional events, Richard rarely has a moment that’s less than interesting.
At the show we meet Mr Memory (Michael Condron), a man who remembers 50 new facts every week and is put to the test live on stage by the compѐre (Benjamin Stratton). Richard meets Annabella (Hannah Brackstone-brown), a woman with a German sounding accent and a secret she must reveal to a professor in the Scottish Highlands. Richard brings the lady back to his flat, moments later Annabella lies dying with a dagger in her back. Not that’s she dies peacefully. In this adaptation of the 1935 Hitchcock classic film, everything is over the top.
Not in a bad way, the exact opposite, in fact. Bruiser Theatre director, Lisa May, has gained quite a reputation for the physical stylings of her productions. Easy and hilarious on the eye for the audience, a tough couple of hours for the actors. The set changes every two, three, at most four minutes a time and all four actors push and pull, lift and swing all manner of props. One minute we’re at the theatre, the next Richard’s bachelor pad, then a train carriage, a farmer’s humble dwellings, a hotel, political rally, the professor’s mansion, the list tumbles on. Set designer, Stuart Marshall does so much with so little and a ton of imagination.
But there’s much more to this than pure slapstick. The script is word perfect. Richard to a policeman: “Are you married?”, “Yes, but don’t rub it in!” Then two lingerie salesmen on the train, one holds up a bra, the other: “Ahh, two wonders of the modern world.” If the pacey physical action doesn’t get you, the dialogue will certainly have you enthralled.
With a dead ‘spy’ on his lap, Richard is now at the centre of an international espionage ring and must get to the Highlands to safeguard England’s security. Add to the mess he has real coppers from Scotland Yard on his tail plus two others whose credentials are more than questionable. Of course, what’s a spy thriller without a love interest? Pamela Edwards (Hannah Brackstone-Brown) is a classy, innocent bystander who just happens to be at the wrong place, and for Richard, at the right time.
The love/hate relationship is just one of the many thrills of this play. The fierce Scottish wind joke never tires. The high-jinks of all characters played by Johnston and Stratton too many to mention. The car assembly/disassembly scene, The McGarrigle Hotel scene, and of course, the theatre scenes are just three that come straight to mind. Every now and then a clean cut BBC radio announcer (Johnston) speaking only the purest Queen’s English provides us with a running commentary of the police chase. Our manicured reporter seems more interested in the six foot one inch fugitive’s dashing good looks, exquisite pencil moustache and dreamy eyes as he is with the crime at hand.
You’ll also giggle at the bedroom scene, the farm fence fracas and many more, proving Condron and Brackstone-Brown are not too far behind Johnston and Stratton with the physical comedy larks.
Will Richard get to the professor, will England be safe again, will Pamela finally give in to temptation, and most importantly to our cad of a protagonist, the one and only Richard Hannay, will he ever be cleared of murder?
Quite simply, one of the funniest shows I’ve seen in a long time.
To find out get on the phone and book your ticket. The box office’s number is: 02890 381081 or visit http://www.lyrictheatre.co.uk
The 39 Steps runs up to and including March 31st with matinees on Tuesdays, Thursdays Saturdays and Sundays.