The 39 Steps started life as a spy thriller novel by John Buchan in 1915 and has formed the basis of a number of film adaptions, most notably Alfred Hitchcock’s 1935 version. Simon Corble and Nobby Dimon adapted the story into a parody for stage in 1995 and it was later adapted by Patrick Barlow in 2005.
The show is currently the longest running comedy in London’s West End which is why it came as a surprise to see the auditorium only a third filled on opening night at the Subiaco Arts Centre. Despite the disappointing audience numbers the dynamic cast of The 39 Steps didn’t falter in their enthusiastic delivery of this fast-paced, slap-stick comedy.
What makes the production unique is that four actors play over 100 roles adding to the hilarity of show. Actor Mike Smith plays only one character – that of poor Richard Hannay who after a chance meeting with a glamorous spy finds himself mistakenly wanted for murder. The other three actors Anna Burgess, Sam Haft and Michael Lindner portray all the other roles swiftly using costume changes, mannerisms and accents to delineate between characters.
Often used for comic effect, there are numerous reasons for casting one actor in several roles but in this case I believe it has been done to add to the entertainment of the show. Playing various roles gives the actors a chance to really “ham” up their performances and demonstrate their comedic flare. Some of my favourite parts of the show are when the actors change characters without even leaving the stage, cleverly removing or adding a new article of clothing in the blink of an eye.
Credit must be given to the very talented actors, who working with limited sets, manage to let the audiences imagination fill in the gaps. The scene where Hannay tries to escape the police by walking along the outside of the train is unforgettable. With the other three actors in pursuit of Hannay the train passes through a tunnel and in perfect unison the cast react to the imagined high pressure wind in a way that completely dissolves the audience into laughter.
Not only do the actors work well together but they are supported by a great team of creatives who are instrumental in making the show the success it is. Costumes, props, sound effects and choreography are all vital elements of this production and the timing in terms of them coming together in unison must be carried out with almost army-like precision.
The 39 Steps is only on for a short time at Subiaco Arts Centre but is well-worth a look even if it’s to check out actor Haft’s striking resemblance to the late Heath Ledger and Burgess’ resemblance to a beautiful doll. It was hard to take my eyes of either of them.
HIT Productions presents
The 39 Steps
by John Buchan and Alfred Hitchcock | adapted by Patrick Barlow
Venue: Subiaco Arts Centre, Perth
Dates: 16 – 20 Sep, 2014
Athenaeum Theatre, Melbourne, 2 – 18 Oct, 2014