REVIEW: The 39 Steps – Lyceum Theatre – Sheffield


The Lyceum theatre has evidently received, what can only be described as a gift, the outstanding show ‘The 39 Steps’. This classic story has been greatly uplifted by a talented and professional cast and crew, specifically to mention the tour director, Nicola Samer, as a theatrical mastermind hiding behind the big red curtain. Drawing on a multitude of performance and staging techniques the rather petite cast of 4 enchanted the stage for 1 hour 40 minutes to take an anticipating audience through the trials and tribulations of a misunderstood, love-struck, but also wanted man in 1930’s London (and Scotland). This chronicle brings to the stage a wonderfully concocted combination of the much opposing genres: comedy and spy thriller.

For those who don’t know, ‘The 39 Steps’ was written in 1915 by John Buchan as a book. Come the 1930’s Alfred Hitchcock had transformed the original scriptures into a black and white spy film to hit the big screens. Then, in 2005, Patrick Barlow’s adaptation of the film premiered at the West Yorkshire Playhouse. The adaptation follows a young gentleman called Richard Hannay who finds himself at the scene of a crime when a certain ‘Arabella Schmidt’ who he had taken home that night, appears murdered in his front room. In her dying words she reveals that the state of the country is at stake as critical data has been stolen by the enemy. These compelling words send Hannay on a wild goose change through the Scottish Moores to save the country. On this journey he learns to deal with being a high profile criminal on the run whilst forming new relationships with women he can’t have. But, does he ever become a hero and save the day?

Peter McKintosh fabricated a magical set. The ingenious idea to have a faux proscenium arch, which divided the traditional box stage into a larger playing space upstage and a more secluded area downstage, highlighted snippets of the play where the actors could use a close in physical proximity to demonstrate a performer to audience connection. On first glance, it seemed this proscenium arch could cause a sight line problem, however, with the cast mostly playing contre stage, all of the action was in clear view. This theme of clarity was continued throughout the set design as behind the faux proscenium arch there was no permanent set besides the 1930’s vibe exposed brick on the walls. The bare and raw feel from the rustic walls allowed for mobile set pieces such as chairs and tables to decorate the space between each scene quickly, bringing a sense of a new room/place with every set change. McKintosh successfully produced a stage where the immense visual imagery of the script could be brought to life with the help of the actors. 

In addition to beautifully elaborate set design, McKintosh also has a divine taste for costume design it seems. A small detail that often averts a spectators eye, something that this theatrical wizard didn’t let amiss, was the fact that all the costumes were functional and they looked like they fit properly. More often than not, it is disappointing to see actors dressed in clothes not made/altered for them. So it was pleasing to see a cast who looked confident and comfortable in their wardrobe. Not to mention that all the garnements on stage were precisely of the correct period and they tied together very well! 

Just another fantastic production element of this show was, of course, the lighting design (Ian Scott) and sound design (Mic Pool). Both had been utilised as a theatrical tool to enhance the action of the stage instead of hide transitional elements that could have broken the pace of the play. For instance, the use of shadows in dark scene changes to continue telling the story instead of pause the narrative ensured the audience maintained active participants of this art work. 

As a final remark on the production side of ‘The 39 Steps’, Toby Sedgwick has done a remarkable job embellishing the foundations of the blocking with spotlessly choreographed movement to really bring the story to life. The element of physical theatre and outlandish movement called attention to the profound abilities of each actor and how style and movement really can speak louder than words. 

Now to the actors: drawing on an abundance of theatre styles and techniques, this wonderful quartet put on their best show at the Lyceum.

Masters of the Brechtian multi-rolling technique, and incredible performance artists in their own right, Eugene McCoy and Maddie Rice as Clown #1 and Clown #2 smashed last night’s performance out of the park leaving the audience in hysterics. Both McCoy and Rice had great responsibility to keep the pace of this play running. By manipulating their voices, physicalities and facial expressions at every new character presented to them, the pair morphed into all shapes and sizes from stereotypical old Scottish grandparents to German spies and everything in-between. The brightest light that shone through in their address of each character was the synthesis of 1930’s dialect to a sometimes political twist on words that resonated with the contemporary audience – revolutionary comedy! Each role they took on felt fresh and new, keeping the audience on the edge of their seats waiting for the next joke to spiral out of their mouths. Furthermore, the creative license taken to bend the boundaries of gender in character added additional layers of comedy and spass to every moment McCoy and Rice took on stage. It is also important to mention that the duo had a phenomenal regard for their surroundings as they manipulated the depth and proxemics of the stage to perfectly suit the aura of each character. 

Tom Byrne as Richard Hannay couldn’t have been better casting. This superb actor maintained a rich and plosive heightened British accent perfectly throughout the 100 minutes on stage. Byrne had a wonderful stage presence and awareness of the unfolding story around him. It felt that his every move was purposeful, timed and accurate to the immaculately choreographed ‘dance’ that is the fast paced physical theatre of ‘The 39 Steps’.

Safeena Ladha as Pamela/Annabelle/Margaret had a difficult job portraying the three different love interests of this story. At times, it felt these characters were slightly underdeveloped, perhaps neglected by the script or maybe Ladha could have slightly emphasised her roles in relation to the other characters; there was a slight feel of disconnection. Nonetheless, though her determination and hard work with the tricky challenge of accents she demonstrated a dazzling ability to multi-roll. Moreover, Ladha used a delightfully precise physicality to communicate the characters emotions clearly to the audience. This is certainly a performance for Ladha and her colleagues to be proud of.

In conclusion, ‘The 39 Steps’ deserves a round of applause for every aspect of production and performance, as the years of work on this play shine through in the smiles and laughs of each audience member. It is no shock to learn that ‘The 39 Steps’ is the 5th longest running West End play in history, with many, many years on tour ahead of it. 

The 39 Steps plays at the Sheffield Lyceum until 4th May 2024 where it continues its UK tour.

Photography throughout from Mark Senior.






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