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130 roles for four actors in spy thriller.

Byline: David Whetstone Culture Editor

IN the classic novel The 39 Steps, hero Richard Hannay is a man on the run... from the police, from German spies and from his own dark imaginings.

In the stage version, running all week at the Theatre Royal, it is the cast who are on the run, playing over 130 characters between the four of them.

After posing for pictures with a vintage car (the novel came out in 1915; Alfred Hitcock's film version in 1935), actors Andrew Hodges and Rob Witcomb - dressed as policemen - saw an end in sight.

"It's a six-month tour and this is the last stop," said Andrew.

"But what an amazing place to be finishing the tour! This is a Matcham theatre and so exactly the kind of theatre that works so well with a show like this."

Celebrated theatre designer Frank Matcham, who designed the interior of the Grey Street theatre and many others around the country, would have known all about The 39 Steps, published during his heyday.

But whether he or author John Buchan could have envisaged a production like this - more affectionate send-up than Hitchcock-style thriller - is another matter.

"It's exhausting," confided Rob Witcomb. "We're running around for an hour and a half."

And as Richard Ede (as suave, pipeclenching Hannay) and Olivia Greene (as the three women in Hannay's life) snuggled up in the back of the car for the cameras, it seemed they don't even get the girl.

Worse than that, even. "He plays more women than she does," said Andrew, indicating his partner in crime-busting. "Olivia gets to play the pretty women and he does all the others, like Terry Jones in Monty Python."

But these weren't complaints. Both actors said they had been having a ball in the play, a West End box office banker before it hit the road in Northampton.

"Myself and Richard were on the last tour, Richard as understudy for Hannay and myself as understudy for the other two," said Rob.

"Olivia was understudying too. But I love this show. It's an amazing show to be taking on tour and it's no hardship doing something you love."

Adapted for the stage by Patrick Barlow, the production relies on the speed and dexterity of its cast as it goes for laughs as well as dramatic tension.

But Andrew said the trick was to make things seem a little shambolic and anarchic.

As the country marks the centenary of the battle of the Somme, this seems an appropriate show to be at the Theatre Royal.

Set just before war broke out in 1914, The 39 Steps was a new kind of thriller. First published as a magazine serial, it became a novel which found favour in the trenches.


The cast of the 39 Steps at the Theatre Royal, from left Andrew Hodges, Olivia Greene, Richard Ede and Rob Witcomb

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Publication:The Journal (Newcastle, England)
Date:Jun 28, 2016
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