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Persephone Theatre’s spy comedy The 39 Steps, based on the Hitchcock film, is a laugh riot

By in Culture
Two gents (James O’Shea and Carson Nattrass) harass Richard Hannay (Matthew Edison).

Some people find it impossible to take spy thrillers from the ’30s seriously. Apparently playwright Patrick Barlow is one such person.

Barlow’s latest play The 39 Steps is a comedic take on the 1915 spy novel by John Buchan, Lord Tweedsmuir, who was the 15th Governor General of Canada. His novel was adapted into the popular movie by Alfred Hitchcock in 1935. The novel and film were thrillers, meant to captivate the reader or viewer with their classic wrong-man plot and devious German villains.

Barlow’s play may keep the exact plot of the film, but his goal isn’t to thrill the audience. It’s to make them laugh.

While slight, Persephone Theatre’s production of The 39 Steps directed by Robert Metcalfe is a successful farce of a 1930s spy thriller. The humour can occasionally come across a little too broadly, but for the most part the play has plenty of laughs and a brisk running time — both rarities for many stage plays.

The play’s hero is Richard Hannay, a Canadian spending some time in his original home of London, England. While at the theatre, Hannay witnesses some shots fired and becomes entangled in a spy plot in which a group of nefarious foreign spies try to smuggle top secret information out of the country. When a beautiful woman ends up dead in his arms, Hannay is suspected in the murder, and so in an effort to clear his name and stop the information from leaving England, Hannay sets out to catch the villains in the act.

The biggest draw of The 39 Steps is its four-person cast. Matthew Edison plays Richard Hannay and does a capable job, all pencil moustache and smarmy charm. His performance anchors the play and without its success, none of the entertainment would work. Naomi Wright plays the three women who become romantically involved with Hannay throughout the show. While she emits the proper kind of sultry seduction for her femme fatale-type characters, her accents leave something to be desired.

And then there are the clowns. James O’Shea and Carson Nattrass play every other character in the play — old women, Scottish farmers, policemen, train passengers, jugglers and even inanimate objects — and sometimes all in the course of one scene. Nattrass in particular steals the show. He throws himself so thoroughly into every character and gives so vivid a performance in every part that he brings down the house at almost every turn.

The play’s set is sparse, nicely utilizing the open stage and the vibrancy of the performances to transform the stage into everything from the Scottish highlands to the theatre of the London Palladium. In particular, a chase set on a train shows just how effective and funny a blank stage can be when utilized properly.

The lighting is especially impressive. One scene utilizes shadow puppets to portray a chase through the Highlands and is hilarious for how low-tech it is. However, the impressive lighting shouldn’t come as a surprise, as the play won two Tony Awards, one for lighting and the other for sound design. The 39 Steps is technically marvelous.

Unfortunately, my time at the theatre watching The 39 Steps reminded me of one thing that can ruin a play regardless of the talent of the performers onstage: the audience. Not to say the audience at Jan. 27’s opening night performance of The 39 Steps ruined the play, but one audience member with perhaps the most obnoxious laugh that I’ve ever heard, one that sounded like a person trying to imitate a raygun while forcing up mucus from her throat, or Elmer Fudd sitting on a juicer, as Jerry Seinfeld would say, overshadowed much of the play’s humour.

It’s always a risk going to the theatre since your daring can be rewarded with interruptions by pesky, oblivious audience members who infringe upon your goodwill. Both the beauty and the danger of live theatre is that it’s live. Being in the physical proximity of other individuals opens you up to their charms, be they good or ill, and the reaction of the audience will always influence how well a play, especially a comedy, performs.

Luckily, the audience of The 39 Steps loved the play, and you will too. It’s the kind of breezy, light entertainment that emanates enough wit to charm you through two pleasant hours of farcical espionage entertainment.

Photo: Catherine Francis

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