This spoof on John Buchan’s 1915 novel and Hitchcock’s 1935 film The 39 Steps started life as a four-person show that was having great success in pubs and small theatres in England. It is still a four-person show but has been adapted by British writer and actor Patrick Barlow as a major theatre production. His The 39 Steps made the West End of London after a stint in Yorkshire, won the 2007 Olivier Award for best new comedy and is now travelling the world. It comes the Melbourne from a season in New York.
The original concept by Simon Corble and Nobby Dimon draws its material mainly from the book, but Barlow has based his version on the Hitchcock film, which is much more familiar to most people and contains some of the crucial dramatic incidents as well as a fair amount of comedy. Much of the screenplay and the film’s humour has been transferred into the play, so that the theatrical version is not a satire of the original, but an extension of it, mining the comic element.
The Melbourne Theatre Company production of The 39 Steps uses the director of the London and Broadway productions Maria Aitken and the Movement Director from London Toby Sedgwick. The cast and the rest of the crew are local. John Bolton joins Sedgwick to work on the movement. With two of the actors playing over 100 roles there is plenty of movement to coordinate! The result is superb slapstick and quick-change character and set shifts. It is remarkable what one door, one window frame, a curtain and a few cabin trunks can do in the right hands!
Our hero Richard Hannay is played by Marcus Graham, who is adept at physical drama and launches himself through many windows and doors in his efforts to escape the police and the spies who are tailing him. He models himself on Hitchcock’s star Robert Donat, laconic and affable, with only a touch of the stiff upper lip. A few heavier brush strokes to delineate the character would lift his performance to the excellent. Helen Christinson plays the three women in his life - Pamela, Annabella and Margaret - as various cinematic female prototypes, the dark vamp, the cool blonde and the innocent country girl. She moves fluently and convincingly between roles and used a fine range of accents and tones, but seemed to have trouble projecting her voice without straining.
All the other roles are played by Grant Piro and Tony Taylor. Sitting at the back of the circle, it took me some time to realise why I was feeling unhappy with the incongruous performances. Once I realised that there were only two men performing every minor role, I relaxed into appreciating their versatility and being astonished by their comedic talents, not to mention their physical virtuosity as they juggle costumes and hats and props within the same brief scenes. Between them they portray some memorable characters: the Scottish crofter, the ice-cream girl and the hotelier and his wife, all with impeccable timing.
Melodrama, which is what this is, is very difficult to accomplish and not often attempted now. Its humour treads a fine line between drama and farce. The play started with restraint and became more animated as it continued. In the second half, once the audience was settled into expecting melodrama and enjoying the multiple role-playing, the actors stepped up the pace and met with a much more enthusiastic response. The actors started to relax and take more risks. The exaggerated characterisations and movements worked well. If the actors had taken more opportunities to address the audience directly, the melodrama could have been even more effective.
The play is punctuated with one-liners, some from the film and some new ones, as well as wonderful visual, musical and verbal references to other Hitchcock films - Vertigo, North by Northwest and Psycho - incorporated into Mic Pool’s sound design. A large part of the humour is derived from the set and costumes of Peter McKintosh, which he designed for speed and which are used to create masterful illusions of the film’s locations and sets.
With a little more confidence and tomfoolery from the two protagonists, The 39 Steps should be a hit with Melbourne audiences. All the ingredients are there. It is refreshing to see a play at the MTC that is pure entertainment and hopefully the cast a will be inspired to add local improvisations and stage business to Barlow’s fine script.
Melbourne Theatre Company presents
John Buchan and Alfred Hitchcock’s
The 39 Steps
Adapted by Patrick Barlow
Venue: the Arts Centre Playhouse
Dates: 10 April - 10 May 2008
Performance Schedule: Mon & Tue 6.30pm (7 & 8 Apr 8pm), Wed 1pm & 8pm, Thu & Fri 8pm, Sat 4pm & 8.30pm (5 Apr 2 & 8pm)
Bookings: 1300 136 166