‘The 39 Steps’ was aces.
Brisbane Arts Theatre’s original 1900s armchairs, swinging jazz music and stylised promotional artwork by Sean and Ashleigh Dowling set the perfect scene for the delightful zaniness of ‘The 39 Steps’.
Billed by the independent company as “a fast-paced whodunnit for anyone who loves the magic of theatre,” it was a Monty Python-esque parody anchored by a formidable performance from Reagan Warner. The play pokes fun at the “innocent man-on-the-run” plot device that’s been used in spy films for the past 100 years.
And the show itself certainly has a long history. Originally a 1915 adventure novel by Scottish author John Buchan, it inspired four very different films between 1935 and 2008, multiple radio adaptations, and even a video game in 2013. The first theatrical adaptation was in 1995, with only four actors playing over 100 characters; Brisbane’s version cites Patrick Barlow’s 2005 adaptation as arranged by Origin Theatrical on behalf of Samuel French. Plot-wise, it plays Alfred Hitchcock’s black-and-white 1935 thriller for laughs, referencing and satirising the famous director’s other works along the way (‘Psycho’ and ‘Vertigo’, among others).
Barlow’s version played in Australia (Melbourne Theatre Company) in 2008, as well as on and off-Broadway between 2008-2010, winning Best Sound Design and Best Lighting Design in a Play.
If there were Tony Awards in Brisbane, the creative team behind ‘The 39 Steps’ would surely bring home its own trophies. Lighting and sound design by Lane Agostinelli, set construction by Tim Pierce, costume design by Brooke Coleman–all presumably overseen by director John Boyce and stage manager Jay O’Keefe–were excellent throughout. There was nary an ill-timed lighting or sound effect; the imaginative use of props, scene changes and costuming made for a hilarious and fast-paced show.
The first act seemed to go by in the blink of an eye. Highlights included a wonderful use of theatre space and sound for the ‘Mr. Memory’ skit, a great gag executed by Warner and two suspicious men under a lamppost (seen when Warner’s character peaks out from behind his blind, only to disappear and reappear depending on Warner’s movements); and exceptionally well-executed train and plane scenes – both technically by Agostinelli’s sound effects, and physically by the actors.
The plot twists and stage tricks that kept the pace of Act I chugging along at high speed seemed somehow to drag in the second half, despite a cleverly choreographed flashlight chase sequence and another inventive use of props that earned laughter while actors created then dismantled a car. Boyce could potentially experiment with the pacing of some scenes (e.g. the hotel scene or political rally) — or perhaps the writing itself just doesn’t quite match the hilarity of the first half.
Warner, as protagonist Richard Hannay, was solid throughout. His comedic timing, complemented by subtle facial expressions and not-so-subtle physicality, won the audience over from the start. No matter his counterpart (from sexed-up Isabella Farry as Annabella Schmidt, to innocently charming Ava Moschetti as Margaret, to cold-turned-loving Roisin Wallace-Nash as Pamela), Warner shone in the role of leading man, whether playing it straight or breaking the fourth wall.
The chemistry between Warner and Moschetti was most believable of the three matches in the perhaps too-brief Margaret storyline. Their romance was hilariously parodied by the classic musical crescendo leading to a passionate kiss, before Hannay declares he’ll never forget her … “Marjorie?” … Margaret!
The talents of the “male clowns” were also on display in a bright and lively fashion. Dom Tennison had a captivating John Malkovich vibe as the evil professor; Daren King earned plenty of laughs with characters including Mr. Memory and a BBC broadcaster with a crush on Hannay; Blake Young and Damien Campagnolo equally commanded the stage in the multiple characters they brought to life.
‘The 39 Steps’ promises a night of fresh stage tricks with a feeling of old-time charm. No doubt Hitchcock fans, in particular, will be delighted by the references to the films of the 1930s, ‘50s and ‘60s — and the rest of us will enjoy the energy and talents of the small but mighty cast.
‘The 39 Steps’ runs from 23 January to 20 March at Brisbane Arts Theatre on Petrie Terrace. The comedic play is made up of two 45-minute acts with a 20-minute intermission. For more information, visit the company website here.