Elea Hepper and Harry Benjamin – photo Sean Owen


The 39 Steps.

Yep, read the book, seen the film, we know that story. Clever, maybe a bit dated, but keeps you hooked in until the end. Bit dodgy on the gender stuff, but a good story.

A comedy! Steady now, I read that book and it’s not meant to be funny. Exciting, thrilling, maybe even a little bit sexy but it is not supposed to be funny. Nope.

Up the steps into the rather lovely Maddermarket Theatre to see this classic tale repurposed into a comedy and we settle into the slightly baffled chaos of this venerable Norwich institution. It looks like a full house for the Saturday night that marks the second day of this adventurous production.

The Patrick Barlow scripted 39 Steps premiered in 2005 in Leeds and works the four actors on stage relentlessly, with tonight’s show giving us Harry Benjamin as Richard Hannay, Elea Hepper as the three women who he encounters and becomes entangled with along the way and Molly-Rose Treves and Ben Prudence as absolutely everyone else in a tale with dozens of characters, loosely following the classic Hitchcock film version of this familiar thriller.

Harry Benjamin is well cast as the Buchan hero and gives the role a good balance between the heroic derring-do action man stuff and the rather more considered moral crusader who risks his own life to do what is right for King and Country. He dashes through bog and puddle, leaps off the Forth Bridge and generally cavorts about in manly fashion while keeping his tweeds fresh.

His sometimes paramour (in three different guises) is given a wistful and engaging trio of personalities by Elea Hepper. She has got swooning down to a fine art, just enough so that we are in no doubt about her heart’s desire, while at the same time a strong dose of ‘listen mate, you’re a nice bloke but don’t overdo it’ keeps Hannay  from being a bit too cocksure.

The other two actors, Molly-Rose Treves and Ben Prudence give us a plethora of characters, sometimes several at a time, and carry the burden of delivering the intense comedy output of this script. There are no accents or stereotypes that these two will not have a stab at, and they do it very well. There are games with gender and voices throughout as they are at one minute Scots farmers, another German agents masquerading as British Police, and numerous others along the way in this fast paced tale. They are confident enough that we never quite know whether apparent mishaps are really so, or just part of a very cleverly nuanced comedy. The fourth wall falls as they share their thoughts with us as the action gets particularly chaotic while between them the cast of four cover 139 separate roles.

Does The 39 Steps work as a comedy? With this capable cast, yes, it certainly does. Knowing the basic story allows us to concentrate on the clever re-imagining of the complex relationship matrix that made this such a good story in the first place, and there lies the rich potential for humour that writer Patrick Barlow has made the most of. Go and see this play and just sit back and enjoy a show that builds slowly but has some great laugh out loud moments that keep creeping up on you when you least expect them. Director Chad Porter has kept the story true to the pathos of the Buchan original but added a well deserved levity to what is by any standards a bit of a far-fetched yarn. There are many clever references to films, particularly Hitchcock’s works, to keep the spotters happy and an energetic cast who take an infectious joy in their performance. Book your seat quickly, they are going fast!

© Julian Swainson 2019


The 39 Steps by Patrick Barlow

Friday 15 – Saturday 23 February 2019
7.30pm Mon-Sat & 2.30pm Sat 16 & Sat 23 February
Tickets £12 (£10 concessions)
Maddermarket Theatre, St John’s Alley, Norwich, NR2 1DR
This is an amateur production by arrangement with Samuel French.

Find out more and book tickets: http://maddermarket.co.uk/production/view/525