Anna St.Clair, Drama Editor
If you are unfamiliar with Patrick Barlow’s 39 Steps, you might wonder whether Player’s Theatre had an exceptionally low turnout to auditions and tried to make the best of it. Directed by Oscar PG Lecuyer, 39 Steps is heavily based on the 1935 Hitchcock thriller of the same name, with one catch: only four actors play every part in the film.
Steps follows Richard Hannay, an Englishman dragged into an international spy chase on the eve of World War Two when he meets the alluring Annabella Schmidt. Schmidt claims that a group of men are out to kill her – if anything should happen to her, she tells Hannay, he should go tell Professor Jordan in the Scottish Highlands. The theatrical adaption keeps Hitchcock’s plot, but its main concern is not the thrill of the chase but what imitation or absurdity will come next.
The comedic success of the show rests on the shoulders of Frédérique Blanchard and Ben Meyer Goodman who play Clown 1 and Clown 2. Between them they play performers, pilots, police officers, maids, old Scottish men, and even a window. In the opening scene, Meyer-Goodman robustly thrusts the audience into the clamorous world of 39 Steps by requesting some mild audience participation. Both actors display feats of vocal and comedic athleticism. Usually a small accessory is the only visual indication of a character change, but these actors’ range of accents and mannerisms never make us question who we are witnessing. Blanchard in particular gives a remarkable performance: In a scene in the second act she effortlessly switches between a Brooklyn accented thug and a country Scottish woman at the removal of her jacket.
Physical comedy complements the raucous: Hannay must slither out from his chair after a dead woman falls on top of him. We quickly forget the disturbing nature of the woman’s death and burst-out at Hannay’s predicament. In another scene, two police officers tell Hannay and his love interest Pamela (Jocelyn Wiseman) to get into the car. When Pamela asks “what car?” the clowns run behind the curtain and loudly assemble four black boxes before announcing the car has arrived. Steps asks us to extend our imagination beyond what is usually expected in the theatre: In this way, it’s reminiscent of Patsy clacking coconuts behind a galloping King Arthur in Monty Python and the Holy Grail.
While the clowns add the comedic layer, Hannay, played by Thomas Phipps, carries the plot. Phipps is a strong choice for leading man. He captures the confusion of an ordinary man wrapped up in a scheme of international espionage. Yet the quick thinking nature of Hannay is always present, which plays off nicely with the farce and antics of the two clowns; the homosexual overtones between Hannay and Meyer-Goodman doing an announcer are a particular gem.
Jocelyn Wiseman plays Annabella Schmidt, Pamela and other female characters—basically any woman Hannay finds attractive. Wiseman’s performance is flat, and it’s unfortunate that the rest of the cast can’t manage to save it. As Pamela, she lacks chemistry with Phipps leaving us bored with the romantic plot.
Overall, 39 Steps is a hilarious romp of a play. It loudly points out that it is a play, which becomes the main source of its humour. Yet it also (perhaps unknowingly) makes you wonder why we watch plays at all. While leaving the theatre, I found myself pondering what now seemed to be an absurd act, sitting and watching a made-up story for two hours.