The 39 Steps

This stupendously silly spy thriller is a delight from start to finish.

Based on the story – but not the style – of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1939 film, itself a loose adaptation of John Buchan’s book, this comic romp turns theatre convention on its head.

Just four actors represent dozens of characters, making frequent in-jokes and playfully messing with what it means to be on stage: we see fake cars with breadstick window wipers, beds constructed out of people, and some very odd escapes through windows.

Everything is played for laughs, particularly by Molly-Rose Treves and Ben Prudence who take on most of the heavy lifting playing policemen, hotel owners, crofters, music hall stars, and even an airplane. Their comic asides to the audience are perfectly timed.

The strikingly tall Harry Benjamin stands out throughout as unwitting hero Richard Hannay, the unassuming chap caught up in a spy ring and having to fight to clear his name of murder. He has the debonair twinkle and sonorous voice of the classic matinee idol; you can’t help rooting for him.

Elea Hepper is a triple love interest, playing a glamorous spy, an innocent Highlander, and a no-nonsense woman of means. She is spot on throughout, but particularly shines as unlucky in love crofter Margaret; her pining tears both comic and strangely moving.

Director Chad Porter and designer James Utting have kept the production tight; it bounces along from gag to gag and the deceptively simple staging strikes the perfect balance between suggestion and functionality. Their planning, and the copious backstage help, is the silent engine that keeps the show running.

Patrick Barlow’s award-winning script is a modern classic, earning it a healthy nine-year West End run. This production by the Maddermarket Players absolutely does it justice.

Dial M for Murder

A shock of blood red curtain, a stark shaft of light and the nervous ringing of a telephone: these are the key motifs of this sharp and stylish production of Dial M for Murder.

Although famous as a Alfred Hitchcock film it hit the stage before celluloid; the tightly written story shines through in both versions.

Kelly Hotten dazzles as Sheila Wendice, sometime unfaithful wife to the calculating, jealous Tony (Daniel Betts). Philip Cairns is her politely lustful former lover.

Robert Perkins is a perfect pot of sleazy charm as the unwilling accomplice to a murder, and Christopher Timothy is the methodical policeman charged with unravelling the complicated case.

Lucy Bailey’s direction and Mike Britton’s design match each other deliciously, lushly evoking the post-war setting and building tension through the piece. Mic Pool’s sound design is devastatingly disturbing during the protracted struggle of the central scene.

A tightly-wound and deadly sophisticated piece.