Saturday, April 02, 2016

The 39 Steps - stylised witty homage to Hitchcock (in Lyric Theatre until 16 April)

The conceit of The 39 Steps is that a cast of four perform 139 parts during this highly choreographed and stylised witty play based on the 1935 Hitchcock film of John Buchan’s novel. The stage is sparse, the props are plenty and the comedy is continuous.

Richard Hannay (played by Michael Johnston) is the kind of smooth-talking moustached Londoner who smokes a pipe, has a broker, belongs to a club and doesn’t care for wars. But this resourceful fellow finds himself accused of murder when the mysterious Annabella (Hannah Brackstone-Brown) dies overnight in his flat. He travels north to Scotland to find the only man who can help unravel the mystery of [pause for effect] “The 39 Steps”. Classic cinematic moments ensue with chases, escaping out the door of moving trains, more chases, and the unravelling of stockings.

The show starts with Michael Condron and Liam Jeavons bursting onto the stage as the two clowns who pick up the majority of the parts and bring the most energy (and twangs) to the performance. Matthew Reeve’s surround sound effects and background music run continuously throughout the two act show. However, the gesture response ping pong between the actors and the sound effects soon becomes wearisome as does all the jiggling and shuffling.

The physical humour is fast-paced and mostly avoids slapstick. At times the two ‘clowns’ play five parts between them in the one scene, swapping hats and accents as they twirl around. Some of the fun comes from the quick costume changes and movement of props that very occasionally go wrong (mostly pre-planned).
“Pretty slick sleuthing for an amateur Mr Hannay.”

Energy levels drop a little during the hotel scene in the second half. Michael Johnston’s delivery of a stump speech at the Vote McCorquodale town hall rally is better in quality and content than I’ve seen from any of the current US Presidential candidates. Hannah Brackstone-Brown ably plays the three main female roles and does well to inject as much personality into them given the constraints of the script – very much of the period in question – and its tendency to reduce women to objects for smooching rather than three dimensional characters.

It’s a complicated script performed with confidence and panache. While it feels like a strange choice – even for Bruiser who revel in physical comedy (remember Spelling Bee?) – the company have mastered it completely.

At times The 39 Steps reminded me of watching the film Anomalisa or Victoria: the conceit is clever, the execution spot on, and it must be great fun to perform and to be in the middle of, but for me it’s not that entertaining. It didn’t appeal to my sense of humour at all – it didn’t make me smile, never mind laugh – but the woman sitting next to me in the Lyric stalls giggled and giggled and she wasn’t alone in having tears of joy streaming down her cheeks at the madcap action.

The 39 Steps plays at Lyric Theatre until 26 April.

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