The 39 Steps, review: presented by Eastbourne Theatres, Devonshire Park Theatre, until August 17

Oliver Mellor and Philip Stewart in The 39 Steps
Oliver Mellor and Philip Stewart in The 39 Steps

Nine storming years in the West End, and now three irresistible weeks at the Devonshire Park Theatre.

If you missed The 39 Steps up in Town, you can catch the funniest, most inventive show of the year on your doorstep.

Anna Clarke and Oliver Mellor in The 39 Steps

Anna Clarke and Oliver Mellor in The 39 Steps

Theatre should always be like this – or at least as accomplished, slick, imaginative and entertaining as this. Director Chris Jordan and his four actors – backed by the excellent unsung heroes of the Eastbourne Theatres team – deliver a glorious evening of escapades and escapism.

Nods and reference to Hitchcock abound. John Buchan actually said he thought the 1935 movie was “better than the original story” and this version follows the plot closely, if utterly irreverently.

Oliver Mellor was born to play Richard Hannay. If ever the Empire needed a suave, handsome hero to thwart the dastardly Enemies if the State, Oliver would answer the Nation’s call. He looks and acts so convincingly that you almost start to take the play seriously. Almost.

Amid the dash and derring-do, Buchan’s women are generally Pretty Young Things who rather get in the way. Well, handcuffed as she is to Hannay for much of the second half, the outstanding Anna Clarke does present quite an obstacle, but Anna brilliantly holds her own as foil to our hero, not to mention as an enigmatic spy and a Strict Presbytarian wife.

The other fifty-three parts (no, I wasn’t actually counting) are delivered with astonishing versatility and unbelievable speed by Phil Stewart and Jon Monie. It’s the ultimate in physical theatre, where a stack of baggage trunks becomes a railway carriage, and a switch of hat or coat turns a milkman into a detective into a hotelier’s wife. But physical theatre is more than a pile of props: it requires timing, energy and the knack of creating characters out of an instant change of accent or body language.

Favourite moments: take your pick. For me, the Forth Bridge clamber, the silhouetted pursuit across the Moors, and the Memory Man denouement which has genuine tension.

You must see this show, you really must. A proven story and script. Pace and colour, laughter and invention. Actors at the top of their craft, and a performance that will leave you as breathless, and as aching with laughter, as they are themselves.

Eastbourne entertainment listings, Friday to Thursday, August 2-8. Click here to read more.

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Four shows to see in Hastings and Rye. Click here to read more.