‘39 Steps' is a madcap salute to Hitchcock
'39 Steps' a love letter to Hitchcock, old films
While the idea of adapting an 87-minute film to the stage using just four actors may seem merely a stunt – and, at that, one destined for failure – somehow the concept behind Patrick Barlow's stage version of "The 39 Steps" actually enhances Alfred Hitchcock's classic 1935 comic thriller.
Barlow credits Simon Corble and Nobby Dimon, two northern English writers, with devising the idea. His stage version premiered in England in 2005; the 2008 Broadway production captured well-deserved Tony and Drama Desk awards.
Fans of the play and of Hitchcock should make tracks to La Mirada for McCoy Rigby Entertainment and La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts' new staging. Through her casting and direction, Jessica Kubzansky amplifies the show's cheerfully flippant, Monty Python-ish tone.
Further diverting from Hitchcock are the various elements drawn from the source of the original film – John Buchan's 1915 novel "The Thirty-Nine Steps." However, fans of the Master of Suspense need not despair, for Barlow's retelling celebrates much of what has made the film one of Hitchcock's iconic works while adding a new, madcap dimension with elements ideally suited to live performance.
The story, of course, is vintage Hitchcock: Richard Hannay (Andrew Borba), a Canadian living in London, befriends a German woman who asserts she's working as a spy for the British government. When she turns up dead in Hannay's flat, he's pursued by the police for her murder. As they chase him from London to Scotland and back again, he tries to track down members of a spy ring and learn the meaning of "the 39 steps."
From the film's familiar music hall opening, where we meet the distinctively Hitchcock-style character of Mr. Memory, we're bounced into Hannay's flat in London's fashionable Portland Place district. Everything in the scene, so tense in the film, is played for laughs – the mysterious allure of Annabella Schmidt (Dana Green), the smoky shafts of light that pierce the dark, the convulsive death scene that sends Hannay on a cross-country odyssey.
Borba is more dashing and gung-ho than Robert Donat, the film's Hannay. Green sketches three dissimilar femmes: Annabella, a sexy spy with a pageboy hairstyle and tight, slit skirt; the Scottish farmer's shy young wife Margaret, who is waif-like and touchingly unspoiled; and, Pamela, the icy blond literally linked to Hannay for most of his journey.
That leaves all of the story's remaining roles, some three-dozen characters, to actors Matt Walker and David McBean, who are billed in the program as "Clown #1" and "Clown #2." Like the creators of the famed "Tuna" series that has often appeared on the La Mirada stage, Walker and McBean are almost incredibly proficient in essaying countless, divergent roles.
The duo's blindingly quick changes are not only dazzling to watch; they're a comedic device, spoofing their chameleon-like abilities. With all due compliments to Borba and Green's skilled portrayals, Walker and McBean's work are tour-de-force turns indispensible to the show's success. (The same is true for Peter McKintosh's modular set pieces and ingenious costumes.)
The overarching comedic tone includes jokey references to the titles of Hitchcock films and the addition of elements designed to evoke laughter – such as the impossibly oversized map of Scotland Hannay carries in his pocket or the herd of sheep (here, two stuffed critters) that afford Hannay a getaway. With each new touch, we marvel at the staging's resourcefulness and the way it matches Hannay's ability to think on his feet.
The climactic scene at the London Palladium is, like the film, incredibly thrilling, as Hannay realizes that the seemingly minor figure of Mr. Memory (Walker) plays a vital role in the spies' plans to smuggle key British air defense secrets out of England. Walker's tense Cockney accent and Memory's stubborn dedication to his craft wring well-deserved poignancy from the scene.
Some of the film's most sublime moments are played for guffaws. This absence of nuance – such as the sexual attraction between Hannay and Annabella, and Hannay and Margaret – undercuts the characters of Hannay and Pamela. The love scenes that develop between Hannay and Pamela mock the very Hollywood clichÃ©s that Hitchcock did his best to avoid.
By contrast, the supremely silly use of silhouettes to effect a frantic chase across the Scottish moors is pitch-perfect, evoking genuine, and well-deserved, laughs. In the end, in fact, the multitude of clever and genuinely uproarious lines of dialogue, situations and inventive comic devices are ultimately what make this staging work and which account for its dizzy, madcap tone – and for a satisfying and rewarding evening of theater.
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