Review: The 39 Steps ~ theatre notes

Monday, April 14, 2008

Review: The 39 Steps

The 39 Steps, adapted by Patrick Barlow, from an original concept by Simon Corble and Nobby Dimon, directed by Maria Aitken. Designed by Peter McKintosh, lighting design by Jon Buswell, sound design by Mic Pool. With Helen Christinson, Marcus Graham, Grant Piro and Tony Taylor. Melbourne Theatre Company @ the Playhouse Theatre, Victorian Arts Centre, until May 10. Bookings: 1300 723 038.

The 39 Steps is a classic British spy thriller which began life as a 1915 novel by John Buchan. It’s hit the screen three times, most notably via Alfred Hitchcock’s 1935 film, and its latest incarnation is this seductively irreverent adaptation by Patrick Barlow.

In Hitchcock’s hands, Buchan’s book is barely recognisable. He vamped up the plot and injected romantic interest in the shape of a series of photogenic women. And it’s Hitchcock’s movie that is so gloriously spoofed here.

Despite its cinematic provenance and gleeful Hitchcockian allusions, The 39 Steps – a remount of Maria Aitken’s original London production, complete with original designer Peter McKinstosh – is pure theatre.

The story is enacted by four performers, with Helen Christinson as the various women, Grant Piro and Tony Taylor playing everything from rural Scots hoteliers to underwear salesmen to spies, and Marcus Graham as the tweedy hero Richard Hannay.

The show is a meta-theatrical joke that relies on an audience’s willingness to suspend its disbelief while simultaneously being diverted by the transparent tricks of theatre. In Melbourne we’ve seen a fair bit of this lo-fi theatrical piss-taking, which paradoxically requires a high degree of precision.

Exposing the devices of theatre makes us complicit in imagining the action, galvanising an active relationship between performers and audience. As was clear on opening night, it’s an approach that immediately invites the audience into the show.

Notable recent examples of this approach are the British duo Ridiculusmus’s absurd two-man performance of The Importance of Being Earnest, Suitcase Royale’s Chronicles of the Sleepless Moon, and Brian Lipson’s Freudian mayhem in the Melbourne Festival show Berggasse 19 - The Apartments of Sigmund Freud.

The 39 Steps doesn’t explore, as Lipson and Ridiculusmus did, the deeper implications of theatrical role-paying; it's content to remain high-spirited nonsense. But there’s no denying that it’s irresistibly funny.

Backed by Mic Pool's witty sound design, Aitken’s direction ingeniously exploits every possible device, from music hall hat-swapping to shadow puppets to blindingly fast costume changes. There’s a river conjured from a length of blue cloth, bogs that are mackintosh-clad actors and toy trains chuffing across the forestage. And, naturally, tons of smoke.

The lynchpin is Graham’s brilliant performance as Hannay. Here Graham’s considerable gifts as a stage clown are brought to the fore: he achieves the baffled sincerity appropriate to the romantic lead while slyly taking the mickey.

He’s ably backed by the other three cast members, no mean clowns themselves, in their dizzyingly various roles. Cliches are seldom this much fun.

Photo: Grant Piro and Tony Taylor in rehearsal for The 39 Steps.

This review was published in today's Australian.


Anonymous said...

The 39 steps was one of the best theatre performances that I have seen. The comic relief of the 2 men and the various love intersts of Richard Hannay created a hilarious play. Well done xoxx

Anonymous said...

I agree, I saw it recently down in Melbourne. I didn't know what to expect but came out of the theatre in stiches. A brilliant adaptation of the story and a most impressive cast.