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Review: The 39 Steps


Review: The 39 Steps

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).



Review: Retail Therapy

Pictured, above,         CeCe (Cassandra Croucher,    “  Retail Therapy  ”   ): “You see, there’s a reason why people in retail smile so much. It’s not because we’re happy, it’s not because we like you. It’s because secretly, we’re dying inside and we don’t want you to know it.”    Picture credit:  Geoff Lawrence ,  Creative Futures Photography

Pictured, above, CeCe (Cassandra Croucher, Retail Therapy): “You see, there’s a reason why people in retail smile so much. It’s not because we’re happy, it’s not because we like you. It’s because secretly, we’re dying inside and we don’t want you to know it.” Picture credit: Geoff Lawrence, Creative Futures Photography

For only five performances (24-27 November, 2016), the Brisbane Powerhouse Graffiti Room (aka the Wonderland Festival ‘Leopard Lodge’) is transformed into the changing room of a major clothing store. Once through the curtain, hangers full of garments in hand, you can learn more about the experience from the other side of the counter. If you are really, really quick, you may just snare a bargain. Get in there now for an enjoyable 50 minutes of music, song and witty observation.

The Cambridge Dictionary defines ‘retail therapy’ as the act of buying special things for yourself in order to feel better when you are unhappy.” Cassandra Croucher’s Retail Therapy takes us into the changing room—and mind—ofCeCe, store manager extraordinaire. In doing so, Croucher redefines the well-worn ‘retail therapy’ phrase. Here we discover the destructive impact of customers on retail staff. Given a chance to look behind the thin veneer of the “retail face,” we learn just what the store experience can do to previously happy, optimistic souls. Yes, I am talking about retail employees here. Before we, the customers, entered the shop staff were once real people, with their own hopes and dreams.

Retail manager CeCe’s advice is to “try not to end up in retail.” In this one-act, one-woman show, we learn that everything we thought was true of the shop assistant is true. Favourite time of day? Before opening (“no customers”). Favourite drink? “Alcohol.” CeCe’s trade secrets include everything from selecting the best new items for herself, through to ‘making friends’ in order to upsell, and hiding from the weirder regulars. Clearly, over time, the customers have driven her to it. The descriptions of customer stereotypes amuse (and occasionally horrify) as we learn a few home truths about how retail staff are put upon during their daily life: from the creepy customers who ‘check in’ with their captive audience, through to the often vile activity of the “fitting room terrorists.” Some people clearly find difficulty distinguishing between changing rooms and public toilets.  

The songs are entertaining and the music easily recognisable: 90s popular songs (think Gloria Estefan and Madonna) interspersed with tunes from shows such as Cabaret, Chicago, and Les Miserables.  But the words are new versions of everything from Madonna’s ‘Material Girl’ through to my personal favourite of the evening, a reworked LesMis ‘Master of the House.’ I loved the singing and the rewording of the songs. But, I’d also liked to have had more time hearing the conversational thoughts of the brave, funny, and observant CeCe.

Croucher is a talented performer—not only author and co-producer of this one-woman show, but also a character actress with a great singing voice. The reality of the retail world is not always pretty, but in these expert hands, we experience the highs and lows of the retail experience. Croucher is witty and downright funny in her observations of life on the shop floor. She is also able to bring us snapshots of the full gamut of retail emotion—from real anger and vitriolic bile, through to pathos.

This store manager presents a feisty persona. But, behind that name-badge and loud hailer, is a sadness, when CeCe confesses, “this place is turning me into someone I don’t want to be.” Recognising that her retail face, name badge and (CeCe’s own special addition) the loud hailer have protected her from the reality of retail work, we realise she is moving toward facing up to being honest with her family about her real life.

Accompanied by the talented David Mibus (Music Director), and with the support of Danielle Carney (Director), Retail Therapy is a perfect show for a festival program. If I have a criticism, it’s that the ending leaves us wanting more—the first 50 minutes of what could be a longer show. I felt I’d seen the first act of what would be a great two-act show. Perhaps the next iteration of Retail Therapy might take us to a slightly larger space, with dedicated sound and lighting support. A chance to hear more about the life of CeCe. Then again, having wanted to study psychology, her close observation of the retail world leads us to think CeCe has just taken her skills into direct field observation. After all, there’s enough material in there for a longer play—or a thesis?

Clearly Brisbane audiences want to see more of Retail Therapy, as the Anywhere Festival show sold out quickly, and the Powerhouse Wonderland Festival shows are almost completely sold out. Tickets are available via the Powerhouse. But be warned, you may have to start lobbying for CeCe to get that pricing gun out again. As I write, even with an extra show added to the program, there are only 2 tickets left across the remaining 4 shows (yes, literally only 2 tickets available, at $30 each, including booking fee of $3).  Get shopping now!  Oh, and practice those folding skills before you go“neat folds.”

Catherine Lawrence

The reviewer attended the 24 November, 2016 performance.



Hello: Anywhere I Want to Be

As a new reviewer, joining the Anywhere Festival volunteers, I was asked to write a short note of introduction, highlighting what I hoped to see at the 2015 Festival...

Having recently completed my study at The University of Queensland it’s great to be able to spend some time seeing the latest, brightest, challenging and entertaining work that Brisbane has to offer. As I particularly enjoy theatre, cabaret, contemporary dance, festivals, and Indigenous art, the Anywhere Festival is an enticing box of delights to choose from. I am looking forward to seeing a range of Festival events, and to sharing my experiences as a reviewer as I tag along behind Geoff (who is a volunteer photographer).

If I had to pick just one show that I would really like to see it, I’m probably not alone in wishing I had bought a ticket for The Mayne Effect. But finding out that the Mayne show sold out weeks ago has not put me off working my way through the Anywhere Festival program, and finding a large number of other must-see events. The Servant of Two Masters, at the Aboriginal Centre for the Performing Arts, deserves to be sold out – and not only because it’s free. It is a great script, and I am really looking forward to seeing this production. Then again, I can’t wait to see The Jazz Age Dance Cabaret … or perhaps I should have mentioned…

Keep watching the website for recommendations, photographs and reviews—or check out the Anywhere Festival program and see anywhere you would like to be in Brisbane this month.

About the author: Catherine Lawrence is a Post-completion Fellow at the School of Communication and Arts, at The University of Queensland, with a particular interest in Australian community festivals.