Monday, July 22

The 39 Steps – Theatre by the Lake, Keswick

Take a step into an entertaining, exhilarating and comical production of John Buchan’s classic thriller The 39 Steps at Theatre by the Lake – and you won’t be disappointed, writes Karen Morley-Chesworth.

Patrick Barlow’s adaptation is an imaginative and brilliant telling of the story of an innocent upper-middle-class, Richard Hannay who finds himself on the run, accused of murder and the only person who can prevent spies from stealing British military secrets.

This is a Theatre by the Lake and Stephen Joseph Theatre production, which is based more on the successful movie version of The 39 Steps by Alfred Hitchcock – and look out for the names of other Hitchcock movies littered throughout the performance.

For fans of ‘The Play That Goes Wrong’ you shouldn’t miss this production which breaks the fourth wall to make the whole experience a unique visit to the theatre. And Dave Hearn, who plays Richard started in the Broadway, West End and UK/international tour of the ‘The Play That Goes Wrong’, as well as the BBC TV versions. Hearn is a master of this style of comedy acting and he had the full house in the palm of his hand at the Keswick theatre.

This is a four-person play – and it is amazing how the actors switch between characters to create a host of key figures who take us from the London Palladium to the Highlands of Scotland on the East Coast Mainline on the Flying Scotsman steam train and back to London for the final hilarious act.

Photo: Tony Bartholomew

The scenes on the train with the choreography of the passengers – played by ‘clowns’ Lucy Keirl and Niall Ransome is pure magic – and the act on the Forth Bridge had many in the audience gasping. This is a well produced production that has taken the excellent script and taken it to another level.

Olivia Onyehara creates three distinctly different women – key to the plot of this classic story. As secret agent Annabella Schmidt, Onyehara plays the part to perfection, with a hilarious accent. She quickly moves on from being the murdered corpse to the young wife of a croft man who gives Richard a bed for the night. Then she quickly moves on to take the role of prim-and-proper Pamela who ends up being handcuffed to David. 

There are so many clever and amusing scenes – including the escape through a window, the duo getting through the five-bar gate while handcuffed together and many more. There is so much to take in you feel like you’ve been on the Flying Scotsman steam train at high speed!

Director, Paul Robinson has set the pace perfectly, and the audience is carried away for two hours of laughter and joy. The setting in the round provides the perfect space to recreate the story – especially the Mr Memory Man performance in the Palladium and also the political public meeting scenes. And the specially created box in the theatre is another ideal platform for the pivotal scenes.

Though you may know the story of The 39 Steps, you’ll get something extra special out of this production. It’s a sheer delight that will lift your mood and have you leave the theatre with tears of laughter on your cheeks.

The 39 Steps is at Theatre by the Lake until September 2nd – information and tickets available from 

Reviewer: Karen Morley-Chesworth

Reviewed: 10th August 2023

North West End UK Rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.