The 39 Steps review - September 2014

Clearly a magical play that has lost it's sparkle...

Opening a play in London and seeing it last more than 6 months at a West End venue is a pretty great success. Adapted from the John Buchan novel and the Alfred Hitchcock film of the same name, The 39 Steps has recently celebrated it’s 8th West End Birthday, thus leading me to believe this must be a truly fantastic show. Having won the 2007 Oliver Award for Best New Comedy as well as two Tony Awards, I was fully expecting magic… When I went to see the show on a Wednesday evening at the Criterion Theatre, I was sad to see just a few glimmers of the show’s potential.

RIGHT first and foremost, don’t get me wrong, I could SEE that The 39 Steps is a great show, however eight years after its opening, to me the production seemed a little tired. And who can blame it really? I am regularly frustrated when seeing long running shows that SHOULD be spectacular (ahem…Mamma Mia!...) but unfortunately they have let themselves go a little bit. With The 39 Steps I couldn’t help but feel that the original spontaneous feel to the piece, the original funny quips, were now just being played for laughs. I failed to feel the passion behind the piece.

There is of course no denying that the actors are hugely talented; four performers tackle 139 characters in 100 minutes which is no mean feat! On the night I attended the show I was told that the four cast members, Alix Dunmore, Tim Frances, Richard Garlazka and Daniel Tuite, were relatively new, so perhaps they were still trying to feel their way through the play in terms of energy and delivery. Having never seen the show before it was hard to tell how their performances may have differed from their predecessors in terms of comic delivery. Whilst I have upmost respect for the actors, I really did feel like something was missing.

I have no doubt that The 39 Steps must have been quite pioneering in the realm of physical theatre in it's day, with it’s slapdash/improve style of performance influencing many great plays in later years. Some such example could be Jeeves and Wooster, which adopts a similar theatrical format but, in my opinion, to greater surprise and subsequent comic success.

I couldn’t say I had a bad time watching the show, but it was frustrating watching something that I knew was probably much better in its formative years. So many people have sung this show's praises, that perhaps my expectations were too high…but shouldn’t they be for a long running West End show?

This is a problem that applies to many (but by no means all) long running West End shows. Personally I think it would be a great idea for producers and directors to pull SOME shows after 7 or 8 years for 6 months or so, revamp them and have them come back bigger and better. I would like to see this done with The 39 Steps so that it can continue to be a leading example of physical theatre at its best. Thoughts and feedback welcome!

The 39 Steps Review

17 September 2014, Criterion Theatre