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Review: The 39 Steps, Blinking Light


As a devoted enthusiast of Alfred Hitchcock’s English era films, I was eager for Blinking Light’s production of Patrick Barlow’s 2005 adaptation of The 39 Steps.

I certainly didn’t expect what soon followed, but that surprise didn’t do anything to contradict my initial level of excitement. The 39 Steps may take a comedic detour from Hitchcock’s suspense, but it’s a journey you won’t want to miss thanks to its delightful blend of intrigue, laughter and stellar performances.

As with most audiences, my familiarity with The 39 Steps was primarily through Hitchcock’s film adaptation rather than John Buchan’s original novel. Blinking Light’s production shared many common elements with the film, such as the main narrative structure, characters, and setting. However, this adaptation also departs in many ways from the original as it boldly embraces the slapstick comedy genre.

Barlow’s adaptation of the script offers a clever and comedic thriller. The story follows Richard Hannay (David Halgren), a man wrongfully accused of murder, as he embarks on a journey to clear his name and uncover the truth behind the mysterious spy ring attempting to frame him. From suspenseful chase sequences to hilariously absurd encounters, the play never fails to entertain, blending elements of suspense, slapstick, and even romance (with credit to Amanda McGregor as the Intimacy Director). Thanks to the script’s witty dialogue and non-stop humour, Barlow’s adaptation breathes new life into a beloved classic, offering audiences a fresh and thoroughly entertaining theatrical experience.

Along the way, Hannay encounters a colourful cast of characters, all played by a remarkably versatile cast – Izabella Louk (also credited as the Producer), Ellen Coote, and Sophie Douglas. Barlow’s adaptation has each creatively playing multiple roles. For Louk, this included the trio of Hannay’s romantic interests; Annabella, Pamela and Margaret, whilst Coote and Douglas’ “Clowns” perform a wide range of bombastic roles, including most memorably, as over-the-top detectives.

Ellen Coote, Sophie Douglas and David Halgren in The 39 Steps.

Despite this being such a difficult script to perform, the remarkably versatile cast managed to deliver an excellent performance in each of their roles, seamlessly transitioning between the quirky characters. In doing so, they embraced their roles, delivering performances that were as energetic as they were humorous. Their delivery and impeccable comedic timing brought the story to life in a way that was both entertaining and endearing.  These performances also benefited from Suzanne Wilding-Harts exaggerated costumes, ranging from oversized fake moustaches and police hats for the Clowns to Hannay’s refined look that features a navy suit and tobacco pipe.

Although the shape and size of Wildfire Lounge’s stage sometimes appeared to restrict the cast, Director Dany Akbar and Movement Director Emilia Higgs managed an impressive feat in the space given. The stage was adorned with minimalistic set pieces, yet it exuded an aura of charm and authenticity, transporting the audience to 1935 London.

Blinking Light’s production and commitment to environmentally sustainable theatre practices also deserves commendation. The programme describes in vivid detail the lengths they went to in order to make this show sustainable – going dumpster-diving, scouring council clean-ups and using Facebook’s Community Groups to obtain mostly everything needed for the production, the only exceptions being twelve screws, two false moustaches, one pair of handcuffs, and a pair of stockings (we can all be relieved with the last one). As audience members, it’s not often that we think of the environmental consequences of theatre, but Blinking Light proves not only that we should, but also demonstrates that it can be done without compromise. This should set an example for theatre.

Blinking Light’s rendition of The 39 Steps might catch audiences off guard, particularly those familiar solely with Hitchcock’s interpretation, yet it delivers a captivating blend of suspense and comedy, complemented by stellar performances. With its spirited acting, clever script, and dedication to sustainability, the production will most certainly be a memorable one.

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