Review: The 39 Steps is a guaranteed night of laughs

Patrick Barlow’s adaptation of Hitchcock’s noir thriller ‘The 39 Steps’ (originally a novel by John Buchan) is a modern comic masterpiece.

Aug 24, 2016, updated Aug 24, 2016
Anna Steen and Nathan Page in The 39 Steps. Photo: Shane Reid

Anna Steen and Nathan Page in The 39 Steps. Photo: Shane Reid

The play has been performed around the world, with actors everywhere revelling in the freedom the text gives the cast.

The storyline follows a typical Hitchcock thriller when an ordinary citizen, Richard Hannay (played by Nathan Page in this State Theatre Company production) becomes entwined in a murder mystery involving espionage, romance and intrigue. The saga begins when a German woman (Anna Steen), claiming she is being followed, suddenly enters his life – but ever so briefly, as she ends up knifed in the back.

Hannay is soon wanted for murder and finds himself on the run, an innocent fugitive. Wherever he goes, newspaper reports describe him as dangerous and wanted for murder. As a decent citizen, he naturally wants to clear his name and solve the riddle of the 39 steps.

There is, of course, a villain behind it all who wants to steal Britain’s military secrets. It is the stuff of high drama, and perhaps totally incredulous in the modern world (although Hollywood continues to produce films that have unlikely heroes saving the world).

Page is very solid in his creation of Hannay as a jolly good, patriotic, heroic citizen, without taking himself too seriously, and his stable performance allows the others to perform madcap antics around him.

Barlow’s script accepts the incredulity of the storyline and the improbability of the hero’s actions, with only three actors playing a multitude of citizens, villains, police and spies.

Actors Tim Overton, Charles Mayer, Anna Steen and Nathan Page. Photo: Shane Reid

Actors Tim Overton, Charles Mayer, Anna Steen and Nathan Page. Photo: Shane Reid

Steen capably plays the German woman, a Scottish wife and finally the innocent Pamela Edwards, caught up in a beastly business. Charles Mayer as The Others and Tim Overton as The Other Others are exceptionally good in their vaudevillian, quick-change transitions from character to character; they playfully break all the rules of good acting with their presentation of stereotypes, costume malfunctions and mishandling of props.

Mayer and Overton are entertaining throughout this production: they appear as criminals or spies lurking outside Hannay’s apartment, as a vaudeville act involving Mister Memory, as bumbling police constables, a Scottish husband and wife hotel owners, and as various citizens. Each slick costume change is accompanied with a clear shift in character and a new voice; The 39 Steps is a vehicle for their talents.

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Ailsa Paterson’s set and costumes assist the seamless transition of scenes. Picturesque settings, along with Geoff Cobham’s inventive lighting, successfully simulate on stage Hitchcock’s film-noir screen creation. A theatre, an apartment, criminals waiting under lampposts, a train station, Scottish fields, hotel foyers and rooms and many more locations are re-created in rapid succession.

The technicians involved clearly have as much fun as the cast in staging the pre-World War I novel and 1930s film in a way that appeals to a 2016 audience.

For Hitchcock lovers, there are numerous text and visual references to other Hitchcock films that adds to the enjoyment. State Theatre’s The 39 Steps is a great night out with guaranteed laughs.

The 39 Steps is being presented by the State Theatre Company of SA at the Dunstan Playhouse until September 11.

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