How to Put Some Pep in Your 39 Steps
Take a deep breath and say this 39 times fast: Canberra Rep’s latest challenge is that of playwright/comedian Patrick Barlow’s 2005 award winning melodramatic parody of Alfred “The Master of Suspense” Hitchock’s 1935 film thriller rendition of the 1915 spy-adventure novel by, Scotsman come Canadian, John Buchan’s The 39 Steps [insert breath]. Now, throw back a neat scotch as you may well need to after this high-energy spoof.
Who else should direct a play with such delightfully bizarre and silly history but Jarrad West?
West’s direction is tight, imaginative and in many ways does what theatre can do like no other medium – creates something out of nothing. We not only accept but marvel at four actors turning a bunch of suitcases and a fan into a tense and hilarious train chase sequence. There are many moments, like this, where West’s production is thrillingly clever, including the playful use of pop music by designer Tim Sekuless.
In fact, my only real problem with this production is that I would have liked to see it go even further in this vein. Michael Spark’s set design, while apt in of itself, is somewhat lost on the fairly sizable Theatre 3 stage and, at times, lighting does not help, leaving empty space too highlighted or dressy stagehands visible. In fact, I would have loved to have seen this production in a smaller space, as I assume the original production before rewrites was, using only minimal props to do it all. As it is, the use of two multi-door cubes, while a great idea, are somewhat underutilized and not large or complex enough for the playing space.
The play is most successful when West has his actors use a little to create a lot.
Patrick Galen-Mules as Hannay is all dignified heroic leading man and, fittingly, plays it relatively straight to the bent craziness around him. It is often the case that seeing someone wriggle from under a dead body, wrangle with an oversized map or wrestle with his handcuffed leading lady and her stockings is all the more funny because we recognize him.
Steph Roberts treads the line of genuine ingénue, femme fatale and innocent(ish) Scottish farmer’s wife with expert comic timing, creating a rich parody of those Hitchock/Bond women we know so well.
Helen McFarlane is perhaps the highlight of the show performing with pure comic class. Yes she snaps from one character to her 39(ish) others with impressive definition but, like a traditional clown, each of her movements in her myriad of types is just as defined and unerringly executed.
Nelson Blattman as her clownish counterpart performs with equal amounts of energy, is just as impressive in his ability to snap between roles but doesn’t quiet meet the polished perfection of McFarlane vocally or physically. Although, his Mister Memory is unforgettably and exceptionally absurd.
In an Austin Powers mimed nutshell, despite feeling like this might have been the wrong venue for the show, this is a production that will make you laugh and is full of imaginative and innovative conventions and performances. It is the theatrical equivalent of Monty Python meets The Naked Gun meets classic Hitchcock… in the best kind of way.