The County Stage Company production of Patrick Barlow’s The 39 Steps is set outdoors, in the pavilion at the Eddie Hotel and Farm. The endless empty fields are the perfect backdrop for a Hitchcock spoof set in the Scottish highlands. Do not miss this production. It is a delight.
Alfred Hitchcock’s 1935 spy thriller, The 39 Steps, set the bar for what have become the tropes of the genre we now know so well. In fact, it invented them. The hero, Richard Hannay, a Canadian visiting London, is an average man thrust into extraordinary circumstances when the mysterious spy Annabella Smith is murdered in his apartment.
The murder traps the would-be West End bachelor in a web of conspiracy, espionage and intrigue as he attempts to clear his name while evading the authorities — both the police and a series of spies pretending to be the police. The spies are from the 39 Steps, a secret international spy ring headed by a mysterious professor sporting half a little finger.
Nothing works better for comedy than cliché. Patrick Barlow’s play both faithfully follows the details of Hitchcock’s film and parodies them. He takes advantage of the long history of spy movies that emerged in the wake of Hitchcock’s film, as well as the traditions of Hitchcock’s subsequent body of work, borrowing episodes from Strangers on a Train, North by Northwest and Rear Window. While the feel of the 1930s and the threat of German fascism is the setting, the music of the production invokes James Bond films as well as Get Smart, Austin Powers and The Pink Panther.
Most of the fun comes of the fact that there are only four actors, and they play well over a hundred roles, which makes for gags within the gags. The cast is high energy, literally pulling off one hat and putting on another right in front of us, and then another, and another.
Brandon McGibbon is the only actor to have just one role, that of the star, Richard Hannay. He is perfectly cast, even looking the part, and when he suddenly, fleeing spies across the heath, finds himself in the middle of a campaign rally for a local politician, he delivers a rousing campaign speech to the crowd. It’s a scene right out of the film, and he makes it all his own; the audience was suddenly Scottish, and WWII was looming on the horizon.
Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster plays all three beautiful —and, of course, interchangeable — women, including the first, doomed spy, renamed Annabella Schmidt, who sports a German accent worthy of Madeline Kahn. Helen Belay and Courtenay Stevens play all of the other roles, with exuberant, circus-ring showmanship. Ms. Belay is an inspired Mr. Memory, and at one point Mr. Stevens switches from spy, to police officer, to inn-keeper in a dizzying series of quick changes while on stage and speaking. Stevens is also memorable as the drover more in love with his herd than his much younger wife.
Hannay must soon flee London’s music halls for Scotland, on the Flying Scotsman, of course. Much of the film version takes place in the Highlands, which is replete with sheep and locals with indecipherable accents. In this production, the actors pointedly look off into the fields as they speak, and at one point throw an entire herd of inflatable sheep into the audience. Hijinks supposedly unfolding in lonely hotels and on fog-covered moors seem right at home in the Eddie’s obliging fields at twilight.
The set seamlessly transforms from bachelor pad to drover’s cottage, and at one point even revolving to suggest the endless rooms of a Scottish country house. Sound effects are also a major part of the production, of course, as befits a parody of a 1930s film.
This production is both fun and clever. Some of the jokes are especially for Hitchcock fans — full disclosure, I watched the 1935 film before going to the play, which meant I could follow the action more easily — but most of the fun here will appeal to all, including young people. Anyone under 25 can attend for free, and the actors went out of their way to make the kids in the audience laugh.
The 39 Steps runs at The Eddie Pavilion until August 6th. For more information, please visit countystage.ca.