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Review of The 39 Steps at the Criterion Theatre, London

The 39 Steps by John Buchan is to many a remarkably familiar tale. Even if you haven't read the relatively slight book, you will almost certainly have seen one of the numerous versions of the tale Whether your Richard Hannay was Robert Donat's 1935 version or Rupert Penry-Jones' version in 2008 or somewhere in between, a play perhaps needed to do something different.

Patrick Barlow's version at the Criterion sure does something different and nine years after its debut at the theatre is still packing them in, my Tuesday viewing left little room for many more patrons. It is however soon to end though as the Laurence Olivier and double Tony Award winner is to finish in September.

The play by Barlow is adapted from an original concept by Simon Corble and Nobby Dimon which was first performed in Richmond, North Yorkshire in 1995. That concept is for a no holds barred physical comedy version of the spy story with the clever idea of just four actors playing all of the parts, in excess of one hundred apparently.

Hannay is played by Daniel Llewelyn-Williams with suitable panache and classic noir style. Only having the single role throughout unlike the rest of the cast allows him to fully embody the role. He is quite brilliant and dons his moustache with pride and playing the role with the perfect balance of seriousness and clowning.

Kelly Hotten is a constant delight in her three roles. My favourite without question the incredibly Scottish Margaret, a gentle little  sweet little performance and even in such a high comedy, with quite a sad little edge.

Completing the four actors are Mike Goodenough and Gary Sefton who between them play the bulk of the characters. On occassions like Goodenough having conversations with himself, coat over one shoulder are simple moments of tremendous skill. Also at one point Goodenough and Sefton swap roles with one another in one scene to remarkably clever effect. Sefton also has got quite a line with playing the ladies, with a little panto (but not too much) and more than a hint of bosom lifting in the Les Dawson tradition. When he is donning a dress, he unquestionably steals many of the scenes.

The design by Peter McKintosh is stripped cleverly to the bare essentials, with minimal props on stage. A spinning door cleverly portraying many rooms and a window frame happily providing a window wherever one is needed. Chairs fly in perfectly timed and toy trains happily portray travel. It is quite a magnificent thing to behold.

I also loved the moments where we slip out of performance when something has slightly gone wrong or delayed. I can only assume that these are deliberate incidents, they certainly feel like it, but either way they give many of the magic moments.

So nine years in London means you are doing something right, but  the end looming for the show. So you need to get quick stepping to the Criterion as soon as possible to lap up this constantly clever, fast paced and at times painfully hilarious little gem of a show.

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Performance reviewed: Tuesday 23rd June, 2015 at the Criterion Theatre, London.

The 39 Steps runs at the Criterion until Saturday 5th September, 2015.

For further details about the show visit the website at http://www.love39steps.com/

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