From the moment the curtain went up on the first night of The 39 Steps play adaptation of John Buchan’s spy/thriller novel, written in 1915, the audience knew they were in for the ride of their lives. Four actors, who between them play multiple roles, take us on a madcap chase from London to the Scottish Highlands and back, in search of a spy ring that is about to betray Britain by stealing vital military secrets.
Stellar actor Kevin Hanssen plays the lead role of imperialist adventurer Richard Hannay, who has recently returned to London after a long stay in Rhodesia. Attractive, in his late thirties and with a pencil moustache, Hannay is at a loose end after a best friend has relocated to Chicago, while another was eaten by a crocodile in the Limpopo.
Everything changes when femme fatale Annabella Schmidt, played by Lucy Eyre, bursts into Hannay’s flat. She tells him about ‘a very brilliant agent of a certain foreign power’ based in Scotland, that is about to receive confidential information damaging to Britain, a country on the brink of war with Europe. Always a gentleman, Hannay allows her to spend the night in his bed, while he gets ‘a shakedown on the armchair.’ Later in the night, Annabella staggers in with a knife in her back, and dying in a dramatic fashion, falls upon Hannay, still dozing in his armchair.
Putting the security of his country before his own safety, Hannay decides to solve the mystery, and grabbing a map of Scotland, hares off to the station to catch the Flying Scotsman express train to Edinburgh. He narrowly avoids two assassins disguised as lamp posts in the street below, by borrowing a milkman’s cap and coat. The assassins, referred to as Clowns 1 and 2, are played by Benedict Latto and Paul Shepherd.
Depending on the variety of characters they play, these versatile actors speak with Scottish, Cockney, British and German accents at will, swapping costumes, wigs, deportment and personalities at lightning speed. Whether they’re playing garrulous underwear salesmen, a surly Scottish crofter, a German spy or the ditzy wife of a British professor, the Clowns never fail to impress.
Lucy Eyre, in addition to her role as the flirtatious Annabella Schmidt, plays Pamela, a British woman on the train, and Margaret, a young Scottish woman who lives with her elderly cranky and jealous husband on the moors. Eyre also shows skill in managing different accents, and in swift costume changes.
There is never a dull moment, as Hannay, like James Bond, escapes unscathed from one life-threatening encounter and then another. The audience is carried along willy-nilly, gasping with relief at one moment and roaring with laughter at another.
Clever set design is minimal but effective. The crash of the light aircraft searching for the fleeing Hannay across the moors, is convincingly enacted with lighting, shadow and sound, and Hannay’s leap from the train as it crosses the Forth Bridge is nothing short of miraculous.
Four accomplished actors provided a wonderful evening of entertainment at Reps Theatre. While delighting the audience, they enjoy themselves in equal measure.