‘The 39 Steps’ was rib-tickling.
Where have Introspect Theatre Company been hiding? That is the question because their debut production of ‘The 39 Steps’ is nothing short of hilarious. While it wasn’t flawless, the sheer talent and comedic genius of the cast and crew pulsated from the stage.
A parody of the classic whodunit stories from the 1930s, ‘The 39 Steps’ pokes fun at the motifs, stereotypes and outlandish plot points of the originals. A typical British comedy, the piece mocks the Scottish, the Europeans and, at times, representations of women. The story follows the journey of a handsome Mr Hannay as he unravels the source of murder, espionage and mystery; and, along the way, finds love.
Sound and lighting, by Dwane and Leighton Hedges, ensured the cast were visible and audible. While the lighting was limited to a small bar of par cans and a few LED strips, it allowed enough diversity to create scene differentiation. For such a small space, microphones seemed unnecessary, but were used and may have been useful to some audience members. Cleverly crafted and adding depth to the production was the soundscape designed by Cindy Sykes and Cein D’Costa. At times these included phone rings, train horns, and audience sounds to create realistic effects; and at other moments there were humorous music selections and drum sounds to help jokes and one-liners land.
Technically, the venue was a school hall theatre and so presented some challenges. For matinee shows, the inability to entirely block out the sun hindered the scene blackouts. The seating options were either awkwardly close or too far back, and the use of the area in front of the proscenium arch could have been further explored. Furthermore, the piece would have benefited from more thoughtful staging, to avoid the constant opening and closing of the proscenium curtain, and extended blackouts during scene changes.
All of this, however, is a reflection of space limitations and not the ability of those involved. Furthermore, it did not detract from the outstanding performances, direction and design elements.
Costumes by Louise Buckley and Kaliesha Coyte were well-considered, reflective of the 1930s time period and interchangeable. A strategic use of layers allowed the “Clown” characters the ability to change between roles with record speed and created distinct looks for the 100+ characters.
These costumes were complemented by a strategic set design by Emmilyne Major. On top of the endless characters were the extensive number of locations. The use of adaptable set pieces, such as moveable door frames, windows, ladders and seating, allowed for a spectrum of settings. In one instance a ladder and car wheel became the wings and steering of a plane, and in another, a series of suitcases became a train carriage. It would have been great to see this flexible set design developed even further to help alleviate the need for lengthy scene changes.
Direction by Cindy Sykes was executed thoughtfully on the micro-scale but needed further finessing in the overall staging. Sykes had her cast consider and select moments of realism and contrast these with exaggerated characterisations and reactions. Her choices with regards to blocking in each scene, including non-verbal scenes such as the flashlight chase, were fantastic. Unfortunately, the flow between scenes felt disconnected at times and wasn’t to the same exceptional standard. Sykes also had a short cameo in which she played a suspicious woman with a Germanic-French accent who is promptly murdered in the night. In this role, she was hilarious.
Carrying the production was Cein D’Costa as Mr Hannay. As the “straight man” protagonist, Hannay can be a challenge to play. Every other performer has the opportunity to go big and comical with their reactions, however, Hannay is far more straight-laced and it is his neutral reactions that receive the most laughs. D’Costa played this well and brought a Mr Bean-esque vibe to some of his more comedic scenes, including wiggling out from underneath a corpse.
Ashley Coyte and Michael Petrie portrayed nearly hundreds of characters throughout the show, and their outstanding talent, comedic timing and knack for accents was on full display. Credited as “Clowns”, Petrie and Coyte were more like chameleons, morphing from strict English police officer to elderly cleaning lady, cockney showman to Scottish hotel workers, and various roles in between. Their quick adjustments in body disposition, vocals and pace showcased their professionalism and skill for character acting.
Robyn Payne, playing love interest Pamela Edwards, equalled her gentlemen co-stars with her quick wit and accent work. Edwards presented a believable accent for the period and had good chemistry with co-star D’Costa.
Hands-down one of the funniest shows presented this year, some members of the audience were nearly rolling on the floor clenching their stomachs in fits of laughter, and others had a tear in the eye at the assortment of comedy types. A feel-good show is precisely what the world needs right now, and Introspect Theatre Company have delivered just that. A highly skilled team of comedians and performers, mixed with some clever design choices, made for a quality rendition of ‘The 39 Steps’.
‘The 39 Steps’ performs until Sunday, 1 August 2021 at Northpine Christian College. For more information visit Introspect Theatre Company’s website.