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Tuesday, July 23, 2024

Theatre review: The 39 Steps is an actor’s workout

Much of the success of this spoof remains with the stage business

It may fly in the face of Patrick Barlow’s assertion that anyone attempting his adaptation of The 39 Steps should “remember the story too”, but let’s face it, the majority of this play’s appeal lies squarely with its stage business.

Fortunately, in the Circle Bright Productions version currently on stage at the Norman Rothstein Theatre, director Sarah Rodgers gives her actors just enough to keep things interesting.  It also helps that both Jay Hindle and David Marr have previously performed in this send-up of John Buchan’s novel and Alfred Hitchcock’s 1935 mystery/thriller.

The set-up for The 39 Steps may sound relatively simple, but its reality is far from: recreate Hitchcock’s film in its entirety onstage. But with just four actors. And then never take any of it too seriously, while still managing to find the truth behind the mayhem.

In this production, the first imperative is a given and executed with precision and not a little sweat equity from the actors. Director Rodgers and her actors take Barlow at his word to not “be bound by the instructions on the page” and to “take what looks helpful or fun then invent the rest”.

The second imperative is a bit more subjective, for while the play itself never allows the actors to take themselves too seriously, being in on the joke with them should be half of the fun.

And in fact, director Rodgers provides her own introduction rather than as originally written in Barlow’s adaptation. Here the actors begin seated among the audience, where we are even acknowledged: “Excuse me, pardon me, sorry” as both Hindle and Ella Simon squeeze in-and-out of our row a number of times.

While a promising start, the central premise that the two are volunteering to help recreate Hitchcock’s film after the projector fails, is a little muddled. It is also, disappointingly, one of the few times we, the audience, feel like we are really part of the action.

Sure there are a couple of winks and nods, but these are infrequent and the actor’s self-awareness is largely missing. Getting the audience in on the joke and sustaining it is the difference between a good production and a great one.

Director Rodgers finds her dashing leading man, Richard Hannay, in Hindle. He not only has the matinee idol looks, but even while he may be the only actor to play a single character it doesn’t mean he isn’t called upon any less to perform the necessary physical comedy.

Hindle finds his match in Ella Simon who plays a trio of women, who not only become embroiled in the mystery, but ultimately find themselves smitten by his charms. Perhaps a little dated now, there is just enough hint from Simon that takes the edge off the more sexist of these interactions.

The majority of the heavy lifting though comes from David Marr and Kazz Lezkard who play the characters Barlow has simply labelled as “Clown 1” and “Clown 2”.

Called upon to be everything from a train conductor, spies, innkeepers, and pretty much every incidental character in the story, they rarely have time to rest. The best thing about these two though, like the rest of the cast, they seem to be having the time of their life.

Adding another layer, and some strategic sheep placement, is Matt Grinke’s delightful live performance on piano stage right.

Gerald King gets to have some fun with the lighting on Drew Facey’s stage-within-a-stage set design which gives the actors plenty of room to play. Sheila White’s costumes are absolutely gorgeous on both the men and the single female cast member, with Hinkle’s three-piece suit looking as good as he does.

Special mention has to go to Circle Bright Productions’ desire to be more inclusive. As such, the company offers Jan Chan’s Mandarin surtitles from a translation by the show’s producer Hanying Chen. Never obtrusive, this additional access point opens the possibility of live theatre for a large audience and is definitely a welcome step.

Overall a solid production of what can be a complex undertaking, the only thing missing was in spending more time to ensure the audience is brought along for the ride.

The 39 Steps adapted by Patrick Barlow from the novel by John Buchan, and the film by Alfred Hitchcock. Directed by Sarah Rodgers. A Circle Bright Productions presentation on stage at the Norman Rothstein Theatre (950 W 41st Ave, Vancouver) until March 10. Visit for tickets and information.

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