August 23, 2016

All the right steps in a hilarious, hypermanic tour de farce

The 39 Steps
Adapted by Patrick Barlow
from the movie by Alfred Hitchcock
and the novel by John Buchan
State Theatre Company of South Australia
Dunstan Playhouse, Adelaide Festival Centre.
August 23 . Tickets: $ 28 – $72.
Bookings : BASS 131246 or
Until September 11.
Duration: 2 hours including interval.

Written in 1914 by the English novelist John Buchan as a distraction during convalescence, The 39 Steps became the enduring prototype for the fugitive thriller. Then, adapted and re-written by Alfred Hitchcock and his team, the 1935 film marked a high point in his British career, using tropes and signatures which later defined his Hollywood classics.

The ripping yarn of British patriot Richard Hannay, on the run in Scotland, in pursuit of master spies and foreign agents posing as pillars of the establishment, captured the zeitgeist prior to both world wars.

A new century brought a fresh twist to a beloved text when in 2006 English writer and comedian Patrick Barlow scripted the film version to be played as a stage comic thriller;  a tour de farce by four actors. Fun would be had with the hats, trench coats and pencil moustaches – and dialogue intended for 240 characters was now divvied up four ways.

One actor plays Hannay, another the three intriguing women from the Hitchcock version, and two hypermanic thespians play everyone else in a flurry of hats, wigs, false beards, accents and dialects which span the British Isles and beyond.

Ten years after Barlow’s play became a West End hit, the State Theatre Company and director Jon Halpin have again put The 39 Steps through its paces. And a fine and funny job they have made of it. Designer Ailsa Paterson has created a Thirties deco proscenium façade within which tall scaffold frames on wheels imaginatively become parlours, hotel lobbies and street scenes. A painted flat of a Scottish moor recreates the mysteries of Hannay’s pursuit, intriguingly lit in foggy noir by Geoff Cobham. Stuart Day’s music is an excellent mix of period dance styles, rolling drums and a brass band version of The Teddy Bears’ Picnic.

The actors rise to the task. Nathan Page plays the intrepid Hannay seriously enough to keep the suspense moving, while adding the necessary drollery. Anna Steen crisply captures the doomed agent Annabella Schmidt, the melancholy Margaret and the unflustered heroine Pamela Edwards.

Moving through The Others and the Other Others, as Barlow calls the 236 remaining parts, Charles Mayer luxuriates as the villainous Professor, escalating to Milligan goonery for the Scottish characters. Tim Overton as Mr Memory, the hotelier’s wife and a multitude of gormless offsiders, is equally a comic delight.

Halpin has kept the pace brisk but is careful to savour the jokes and visual gags – the extended silent scream of the housekeeper parodying the Hitchcock set piece, the witty jokes with props, the mis-timed scene changes, the slapstick and hat changing schtick. Such fresh, inventive stagecraft makes re-tracing The 39 Steps entertaining all over again.

Murray Bramwell

“All the right steps in a hilarious, hypermanic tour de farce” The Australian, August 25, 2016, p.15

No Comments »

No comments yet.

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URL

Leave a comment