Review: 39 Steps, Theatre Royal, Newcastle, until Saturday, May 11

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The title of The 39 Steps is perhaps selling the play a little short.

Four actors, 139 roles, 100 minutes of swashbuckling action, dozens of scenes and a liberal smattering of Alfred Hitchcock gags make up the West End adaption of the cinema classic.

The film itself was based on John Buchan’s spy novel of the same name and anyone who has read it will know only too well how farcical are its twists, turns and wooden characters.

Recognising this, the producers of the stage version have picked up the ball and run with it, giving up any hope of a serious adaptation.

Better to get laughs intentionally than unintentionally – not that the production doesn’t manage to generate a certain amount of suspense and intrigue.

The result is a comedy thriller following the adventures of handsome hero Richard Hannay (Richard Ede).

Armed with a stiff-upper-lip, British gung-ho and a pencil moustache, he encounters dastardly murders, double-crossing secret agents, and, of course, devastatingly-beautiful women – all of whom are played by just three other cast members.

While a lot of the humour was a little farcical for my taste, it would take a sour, soul-sad grump indeed not to laugh throughout the show.

The setting and scenes are at times ingenious, at times intentionally hilarious, but always inspired and wonderfully imagined.

Silhouettes, a train set and shadow puppetry are all used to tell the tale on top of top-class performances.

Not content with portraying the gargantuan cast of roles, actors Tony Bell, Gary MacKay and Charlotte Peters play a variety of human props and set pieces, including everything from stiles to bogs.

The simple sets endlessly metamorphosise: chairs and a lectern become a car, a shower curtain becomes a waterfall, trunks a train carriage.

However, despite being swamped with humour and action, the play does manage to present an engaging enough narrative to carry the audience along.

All this is infused with a rich sense of Englishness and an atmosphere which encapsulates pre-Second World War Britain.

In short, this is an ingenious and enjoyable romp which can’t fail to wow and amuse.

Ross Robertson