Wednesday, 24 August 2016

Review: 'The 39 Steps'

Dunstan Playhouse, 19 August–11 September 2016. Adapted by Patrick Barlow from the movie by Alfred Hitchcock and the novel by John Buchan. Performed by Charles Mayer, Tim Overton, Nathan Page, and Anna Steen. Directed by Jon Halpin.

Melbourne Theatre Company’s Double Indemnity, a new play by Tom Holloway based on James M. Cain’s 1943 novella and directed by Sam Strong, has just closed at the Arts Centre’s Playhouse. Unlike Simon Phillips’ staging of Alfred Hitchcock’s North By Northwest last year for the same company, the play was widely regarded as a failure, if not a disaster, which must have come as a shock to MTC’s programming committee who had presumably gotten used to banking on adaptations of old noir thrillers after the critical and commercial success of North By Northwest.

But it was an earlier production that really set the mold: Patrick Barlow’s adaptation of another Hitchcock classic, The 39 Steps, which MTC presented in 2008 in a remount of Maria Aitken’s original London production. (South Australian audiences were given a taste of this sort of thing with Kneehigh Theatre’s Brief Encounter in 2013, and again the following year—albeit on a more modestly resourced scale—with’s Notoriously Yours, in which Van Badham riffed off Hitchcock’s Notorious to fashion a lively script about the surveillance state). Barlow’s adaptation, as this new production by the State Theatre Company of SA attests, is a play with many lives, as improbably adept as its hero, the handsome but vacuous Richard Hannay, at overleaping fences and stopping bullets.

Perhaps where Holloway and Strong erred in their version of Double Indemnity was in cleaving more to Cain’s book than the 1944 film, which had the benefit of a screenplay by noir maestro Raymond Chandler. The 39 Steps, in contrast, adheres closely to Hitchcock’s film (only the most famous of three screen adaptations of John Buchans 1915 novel), replicating much of its dialogue and retaining almost all of The Master of Suspense’s innovations including the prototypical femme fatale Annabella Schmidt, absent from Cain’s all-male book.

Barlow’s most significant original contribution is a simple framing device that sees Hannay give suitably hardboiled monologues at either end of the show, a conceit that both recalls another noir classic, The Third Man, and helps to bridge the gap between performers and audience by knowingly placing us in his shoes: bored observers of life, drained by the daily horrors of the news, and longing for, as he puts it, ‘something mindless and trivial’. (Barlow also adds an explicitly Nazified bad guy, a tin-pot fascist in the mold of Oswald Mosley, in a move the playwright now regards as a chilling portent of the far-right’s new self-styled übermenschen, which—though it’s surprisingly easy to imagine Nigel Farage in a smoking jacket and monocle dragging on a cigarette holder—seems a longish bow to draw.)

Frivolous The 39 Steps may be, but the demands it places on its cast of four are considerable. In reproducing a film that involves dozens of characters, locations, and much technical wizardry—not to mention any number of planes, trains, and automobiles—they are required to juggle half a dozen arts at once (there is some literal juggling too, albeit sans balls) like the old vaudevillians they resemble when madly swapping hats and places in a splendidly frantic recreation of the film’s train chase sequence. Biplanes and marching bands are summoned via the rough magic of shadow puppetry, and cars are fashioned as though by improvisation from packing crates and a rostrum, all couched in the high energy of farce and the winking joy of meta-theatrical knowingness that brings us along for the ride by firmly engaging our imaginations. Barlow is a specialist at this sort of thing, having previously tailored the nativity, the French and Russian Revolutions, and even The Ring Cycle for casts as small as two, and there is, as director John Halpin notes in the program, a special pleasure in watching actors attempt the seemingly impossible, and failing and triumphing ‘in equal and hilarious measures’. (Halpin is no stranger to Barlow, having previously directed The Messiah for HotHouse Theatre and Queensland Theatre Company.)

Halpin’s cast, spearheaded by co-star of ABC TV’s popular Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries Nathan Page as Richard Hannay, is uniformly excellent. Page, in a characterisation that, unlike Robert Donat’s original, is more doltish than debonair, charms and repulses in equal measure, bouffant hairdo framing a strong-jawed, though open, even babyish face, that is permanently, and funnily, set in pokerfaced straight man mode. Anna Steen, though given lamentably little to do, impresses as the characteristically enigmatic femme fatale Annabella Schmidt, and later as Hannay’s cynical love interest Pamela Edwards. Charles Mayer and Tim Overton—the latter now, in this critic’s mind, firmly established as one of Adelaide’s finest young comic actors—skillfully inhabit a dizzying variety of roles, including an almost grotesque pair of Scottish hoteliers. I think it’s fair to say that the precision necessary to carry all of the gags full-term was not yet in evidence on opening night, and there are some dead patches that a simple injection of pace will probably remedy, but I’d be surprised if Tuesday night’s chuckles hadn’t become belly laughs by this time next week.

Ailsa Paterson’s set and costume designs revel in delightful period detail—I particularly liked the red velvet drapes, shell footlights, and polished boards highlighted during the London Palladium sequences—but the three wooden scaffolds, their platforms often obscured by an inelegant black screen, occasionally produce a claustrophobic effect that feels inappropriate. The production works best when the scaffolds are whisked away to allow the flying-in of various bits of scenery—mainly doors and windows—and the actors the space to work wonders out of nearly nothing. Geoff Cobham’s lighting ingeniously reproduces some of film noir’s most iconic effects—lots of hard light, silhouettes, and venetian blind slashes—as well as making good use of cinematic side lighting. Composer Stuart Day’s score works less well, kitschy where it ought to be moody, and beset on opening night by what seemed to me to be uneven levels and slipshod cueing.

Still, if it’s something mindless and trivial you want—and, let’s face it, who doesn’t at this perilous and precarious moment in history?—The 39 Steps delivers like a film noir patsy with the handle of a knife sticking out of their back.              

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