The 39 Steps by Patrick Barlow (adapted from John Buchan’s novel by John Buchan and Alfred Hitchcock’s film). Produced by Brisbane Arts Theatre (2017 production)

Is it a book? A film? A play? In the case of The 39 Steps, the answer is all three. John Buchan’s 1915 thriller, The Thirty-Nine Steps, was loosely adapted into Alfred Hitchcock’s 1935 film (The 39 Steps), which in turn was transformed into an award-winning 2005 play by Patrick Barlow. Under Barlow’s pen, The 39 Steps is an award-winning, fast-paced, Monty Pythonesque delight. Or at least it can be. The 2015 outing of the show at the Brisbane Arts Theatre was sufficiently popular that the program team felt it worthy of a 2017 repeat.

The majority of the cast and creatives are Brisbane Arts Theatre veterans, including two returning members of the 2015 cast—Darren King (Clown) joins Jonathon Devitt (who reprises his central role as Richard Hannay). John Boyce (Director) acknowledges the influence of Greg Scurr (Director of the 2015 Brisbane Arts Theatre production)—including casting seven actors (the Barlow script is written for four). King and Devitt are joined by four Clowns (Dom Tennison, Reagan Warner, Sarah Britton and Marselan Wignall), and by Claire Argente (as Pamela).

For those who haven’t read the book (…heard the radio adaptation…watched the film…or seen the show as it toured the world), the plot is easy to follow. Glamorous spy dies in the London flat of the dashing Richard Hannay. Hannay escapes to Scotland in a bid to find out whodunnit and prove his innocence. Mad-cap journey across the country follows, during which Hannay falls in love, and saves the country into the bargain (when retrieving national secrets from the clutches of foreign spies).  

The script calls for some of the entertaining clumsiness we see on stage—such as the telephone ringing not quite matching up with the cues (do you wait for it to ring?!), and the lamppost coming back and forth onto the stage. Such 'business' can be amusing—and certainly some of it was extremely well done. The escape through a simple window frame was creative. I loved the choreography of the night-time flash lit search. And the train journey moves were a great demonstration of just what the cast are capable of. 

But other ideas needed a little more work. The audience interaction, the appearance of the bi-plane, a few of the slapstick moves, and some of the opportunities for deliberately over-the-top acting (for example, the ‘duet’ between Hannay and the spy).  And, sitting only in row E, we struggled to hear some of the words (enunciate, please!), and were often distracted by the positioning of the creatives and their blue light at the front of the auditorium.

The production certainly looked the part, with great costumes from Michelle Peloe. But, looking at the promotional descriptions, I’d summarise my thoughts on this production as:

  • ? thriller/whodunnit? … Yes.
  • ? fast-paced? Yeess... but it needed to be faster in places.
  • ? non-stop laughs? Sometimes funny.. but not non-stop laughter.
  • ? pure pleasure? Not really.
  • ? riotous? No.

This was the first time I have seen the show, so I can’t comment as to how it compares with Scurr’s 2015 production.  But a member of our party did give me some feedback as to how it compared with what they fondly remembered of the original. Their memories of the London show were of side-splitting entertainment and slick comedic moves. Perhaps the problem was that we saw this Brisbane production on its first night. I hope that by the end of the run the team will have greater confidence in their mastery of the lines, and of the slapstick ‘business,’ to deliver a more fluid performance of what can be a really enjoyable evening.

The Brisbane Arts Theatre is a local institution, and deserves all the support and audiences it can attract. I am a fan. But there are many other plays out there which they might look at before trying to bring back a production with such a fast return. Then again, if the creative team plan to bring back just one more show from their past repertoire, I for one hope it is the original cast of their fantastic 2013 production of Casablanca.  

 Picture: Brisbane Arts Theatre Poster,  The 39 Steps  (Graphic Design: Sean Dowling. Production Photography: Kris Anderson).

Picture: Brisbane Arts Theatre Poster, The 39 Steps (Graphic Design: Sean Dowling. Production Photography: Kris Anderson).

The 39 Steps 2017 run: 25 February until 1 April , tickets from $15-$34. 120 minutes, including one 20-minute interval.

 Catherine Lawrence

The reviewer attended the opening night performance of the 2017 production of The 39 Steps at the Brisbane Arts Theatre on Saturday 25 February, 2017. (8pm).

Comment