‘The 39 Steps’ was absurd.
Espionage, nail-biting suspense, unexpected heroes, and blonde women. These are the tropes that spring to mind when you think of the late great Alfred Hitchcock. His 1935 classic ‘The 39 Steps’ has been heralded as a masterwork of the thriller genre. But what do you get when you infuse the Hitchcockian masterpiece with a heavy dose of farce, Monty Pythonesque humour, wacky accents, and over 50 dual roles played across a small cast of actors? Well, you’d have Patrick Barlow’s 2005 parody of Hitchcock’s film, also titled ‘The 39 Steps’, produced by Vena Cava Productions at La Boite Theatre.
Vena Cava’s ‘The 39 Steps’ was an uproarious night of laugh-out-loud fun, filled with tongue-in-cheek humour, ridiculous props, and hilarious breaking of the fourth wall. When everything in the world seems to be so serious at the moment, this production of ‘The 39 Steps’ was a perfect opportunity to switch my brain off for a night of laughs, and there were many to be had. Barlow’s writing, combined with the direction of Ayla Long and Taine Harding, left very little room for the audience to collect themselves before the next joke, making it a non-stop laugh-fest.
‘The 39 Steps’ (in this case, very loosely) tells the story of Richard Hannay, a well-to-do Englishman who is suddenly thrust into the world of espionage after a woman informs him of a mysterious ‘39 steps’ that a secret group of spies are after before dying in his arms. What follows is a cross-country journey through England to Scotland and back again, complete with train chases, plane chases, and numerous love affairs.
This plot, while simple, takes a back seat in Vena Cava’s production and lets the jokes do all of the entertaining, and rests upon the backs of its intimate but unbelievably talented cast. Made up of a cast of 7 (though, the backstage crew could technically bring this show to a cast of 9) playing over 50 characters, ‘The 39 Steps’ is a show that demands brilliant comedic timing paired with the ability to play numerous characters.
Richard Hannay, our moustached hero, is here played brilliantly by the charismatic Carey Grant-esque Oscar Long. Despite being the only actor not required to play more than one character, Oscar managed to captivate the audience with his hilariously earnest portrayal of Hannay. There were strokes of Leslie Nielsen-esque comedic timing with his performance, as he made it seem like Hannay was never in on the joke, delivering every absurd line – paired with each ridiculous physical movement – with complete seriousness and a deadpan expression. Oscar’s performance as the ‘normal guy’ thrown into a world he doesn’t truly understand is what sold the performance to me, as his portrayal of this fish out of water character was a hilarious and engaging watch.
Paired with him was Isabelle Steinhardt, who too, brought that same deadpan performance to the stage with her captivating portrayal of Pamela. Her physical comedy was hilarious as she and Oscar struggled together while handcuffed, and yet, her character maintained her stiff upper-lip throughout it all. Furthermore, her performance was brilliantly satirical of the 1940’s love interest character archetype, making fun of how quickly they would fall in love with less than satisfactory men. There were layers of humour in her performance, and she was a mesmerising watch.
The rest of the characters in ‘The 39 Steps’ are played by ‘clowns’ here filled by Annabel Gilbert, Siena D’Arienzo, Nicholas Hargreaves, Michael Probets, and Dean Noffke. All of them displayed a wide range of characterisation, bringing subtle comedic nuances to each performance, so many in fact that I couldn’t even begin to list them all here, but I can note some highlights.
Annabel Gilbert’s portrayal of Margaret was hilarious, complete with a ridiculously over-the-top Scottish accent and incredibly stiff body language, bringing out a very Pythonesque performance.
Siena D’Arienzo stunned the audience with the veritable army of accents she had in her arsenal, all of them sounding dead-on to the real thing, from the ridiculously German Annabella Schmidt to the gruff Scottish husband who only said ‘aye’. Siena’s performance was a standout to me, doing so much with the characters who – when played by a lesser actor – would be blank, one-joke machines. She reminded me of the late great Madeline Kahn, and that is not an achievement to scoff at.
Nicholas Hargreaves brought hilarious physical comedy to his characters and had electric chemistry with his co-star Dean Noffke, both of whom played off each other’s nuances brilliantly.
Finally, Michael Probets who played the villainous, pinkie-less professor Jordan was wickedly evil in this Bond villain-style role, making the audience roar with laughter at his over-the-top moustache-twirling antagonist. I cannot sing the praises of this cast enough.
Directing a show like ‘The 39 Steps’ would be no easy feat. The show is packed to the brim with opportunities for physical comedy, visual gags, and tiny nuances that lesser directors wouldn’t notice, or wouldn’t bother to build upon. Fortunately for Vena Cava, their choice to assign Ayla Long and Taine Harding as directors allowed Barlow’s script to flourish. Under their attentive direction, the pair successfully choreographed every small movement and nuance between each character, from smirks to the audience, to handcuff hijinks. As Ayla Long’s directorial debut, this is certainly a work for them to be proud of, as it had all the marks of a seasoned director. Taine Harding too, allowed The 39 Steps to be at a professional level of quality. Really strong efforts from both of them, and hopefully a pairing we will see in the future.
Lighting and sound are – for the most part – something many casual theatregoers wouldn’t take notice of, but for a show like ‘The 39 Steps’, lighting and sound are what makes the show both visually and aesthetically. The show had a minimalist set design – courtesy of Ellie Waddingham, whose decision to have the actor’s physicality make up a majority of the set, leaving props for visual gags was a wise one – so a lot of the atmosphere was up to first time lighting designer Morgan-Cole Jones and sound designer Caleb Bartlett, and the atmosphere was electric!
I found myself marvelling at the incredible lighting design from Morgan-Cole Jones, ranging from flashing circus lights to humorous lighting cues (with an impressive party hidden behind an imaginary door). Caleb Bartlett’s sound design was so fitting for this show, creating a 1930s atmosphere with old-fashioned music, as well as elevating the excitement of the show with a variety of sound effects to convey all the Hitchcockian thrills.
Furthermore, there were so many little nuggets of humour to be found in both the lighting and the sound design, a particular standout was the perfectly timed humour of Richard Hannay knocking at a door, only for it to make the sound of a doorbell, followed by several spotlights following a character’s slow walk to the door (with an absurdly long creaky groan to it).
Overall, ‘The 39 Steps’ was an absolute blast and a perfect example of a creative team with a clear vision coming together to produce something incredible. The show was like an orchestra, with every element its own instrument and – when combined – creating a beautiful sound. That sound in this case was laughter. Huge props to the cast and the crew, as this was one of those beautiful moments where the behind-the-scenes team steal the show just as much as the brilliant cast. ‘The 39 Steps’ was, by all accounts, a Pythonesque triumph, leaving the audience itching for more comedic delights from this fantastic team.
‘The 39 Steps’ performed until the 26th of November at La Boite, Brisbane. For more information visit Vena Cava Production’s Facebook.