‘The 39 Steps’ marries Hitchcock to Monty Python
By Adam Tatelman, Contributor
The 39 Steps (here until March 16) occupies that bizarre territory of theatre where the performance is transparently an act of make-believe and yet all the more hilarious for it. Four incomparable and seemingly tireless actors (Diana Coatsworth, Jay Hindle, Shawn Macdonald, and David Marr) play over 150 screwball cartoon characters who know that their performances are beyond believable and play that fact to the hilt, constantly breaking the illusion through their interactions with one another, their environment, and occasionally themselves—with uproarious results.
As a fan of Alfred Hitchcock, I was looking forward to seeing his first successful spy movie adapted into a comedy for the stage, as presented by the Arts Club. Much of the dialogue is unchanged from the film version, which is a fairly straightforward (by Hitchcock’s standards), serious-if-darkly-comic thriller. It’s surprising how easy it is to play all the same lines for laughs. The play concerns Richard Hannay, a 1930s Englishman going through a midlife crisis whose world is turned upside down by fraulein fatale Annabella Schmidt, a spy who knows too much about the mysterious and titular “39 steps.” Hannay ends up framed for murder, and the subsequent journey to Scotland to meet an informant takes us through Hitchcock’s entire filmography, complete with references to Rear Window, North By Northwest, Vertigo, Psycho, and The Birds; see if you can spot the silhouette of the master himself!
It is clear that director Dean Paul Gibson is a great fan of Hitchcock films, affectionately ribbing everything that made them iconic in the first place: classic violin chords meant to punctuate romantic or dramatic moments are abused to the point of parody. The understated romance common to Hitchcock thrillers is comically sexualized. The film noir-esque interplay of light and shadows is turned into actual shadow puppet theatre, making for amusing scene transitions. Hitchcock’s personal favourite ‘falsely-accused man’ narrative is spoofed by police radio broadcasts that compliment the suspect on his lovely haircut. All this congeals into an entrancing insane asylum that plays with your sense of aesthetic distance like an old arcade machine.
It’s hard to maintain a sugar-high of manic energy throughout an entire play, but this cast of actors might as well be six years old (yes, that’s a compliment); they change costumes in a matter of seconds, offstage and on, swapping accents, faces, and bodies like they are second, third, fifth, and twelfth skins. Only in The 39 Steps will you see an actor juggle three different roles on stage at once, effortlessly leaping between Scottish constable, English passenger, and wailing train conductor within the span of seconds, or one actor literally wearing two costumes and talking to himself for an entire scene.
As if all this wasn’t enough, the cast and crew are constantly readjusting the stage in full view of the audience, keeping up the breakneck pace without fail. A trio of ladders far upstage becomes a bridge in the distance as Hannay evades the authorities by climbing it; furniture becomes luggage then becomes a train car, in which all the actors wobble along as if they were enduring a bumpy ride; most impressively, a lecture hall becomes a car onstage. All this underlines the hilarity of what we’re witnessing; the transitions are obvious, yet the characters believe it. It is telling that the changing of each character, costume and set piece was so excruciatingly planned out that the entire play is an athletic circus act comparable to spinning plates in perfect unison while performing a flamenco dance. The intermission honestly felt obtrusive and flow-breaking.
I warn you; this show’s run is very limited. Even if you’ve never seen a Hitchcock movie—even if old thrillers are too slow for your taste—this loving pastiche may be just what you need to get into something new. I implore you, don’t waste this window of opportunity. Climb as many steps as you must to see this absolutely engrossing farce.