Thursday, 22 January 2009

The 39 Steps, Jan 22, 2009, ***1/2

The 39 Steps
Adapted by Patrick Barlow from Alfred Hitchcock
Playhouse, Arts Centre Jan 22 to Feb 15, 2009
Reviewer: Kate Herbert
Stars: ***1/2

An action thriller, espionage, murder, police pursuits and a beautiful blonde sound like ingredients of the Bourne or Bond movies of our decade. 

However Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps was made in 1935. Hitch knew how to titillate an audience with action, suspense and sex so he adapted John Buchan’s 1915 novel, stripping away the British Imperialist blather and adding a sexy blonde and rapid-fire action.

Now we have Patrick Barlow’s satirical stage adaptation of Hitchcock, using physical comedy to replicate the movie thriller style in stage action. It is a physical comedian’s dream and the audience claps like seals at every sight gag.

The dashing hero, Richard Hannay (Mark Pegler), visits a performance by Mr. Memory where he meets Anabella (Helen Christinson), “a beautiful, mysterious woman pursued by gunmen,” who is later murdered in his London flat. Hannay flees when he is accused of her murder and becomes embroiled in the hunt for a villain who is stealing British military intelligence.

Barlow and director Maria Aitken employ every comic trick to translate the rollicking tale to the stage. The comedy arises from the sheer inventiveness of using four actors to play dozens of characters with mad accents. It also gets laughs from the idiocy of trying to create film reality on stage (the train chase is a riot) and by repeatedly referring to the failure of theatrical devices: late lighting cues, dropped lines, actors playing objects or dragging on props to create a location.

The audience is tickled when two actors (Russell Fletcher, Jo Turner) playing multiple characters switch rapidly between characters with the twitch of a hat or change of accent – a classic clown routine. Turner and Fletcher relish playing characters including Scottish police, villainous spies, farmers, station masters, paper boys, milkmen, landladies and an entire bagpipe parade.

Hitchcock’s style is so ripe for satire and the surprising simplicity of comic invention makes us laugh, as does the wry, English humour. Barlow incorporates references to Hitch’s movies: “I have vertigo”, says Christinson as Pamela, the perky and petulant blonde to whom Hannay is handcuffed.

Pegler captures the toffy-nosed voice and earnest posturing of the heroic, pencil-moustached Hannay. Christinson is charming and funny as a German spy, pretty Scottish farm girl and delicate English rose.

But without the versatile and hilarious Turner and Fletcher to create the entire landscape and parade of characters, this uproarious comedy could not succeed.

By Kate Herbert

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