We meet our Canadian protagonist, Richard Hannay, played by George Maratos, in his West End London flat. It’s the mid-Thirties and he’s bored.
So he decides to go to the theatre. This cures his boredom. It will cure yours.
In Hannay’s case, a mysterious woman takes a seat next to him, shoots into the ceiling to cause a diversion, and invites herself back to his home.
I think the Guild’s The 39 Steps will itself serve to entertain you, but by all means share the vacant seat beside you (if there is one) with any mysterious woman who inquires about it. Who knows what might happen?
Carrie Burgess as Pamela, George Maratos as Richard Hannay in The 39 Steps
As a location, the theatre frames the script. The crazy part of the action begins and ends in the theatre. Al Loewen’s set picks up on this element. A red arch decorated in gold geometric patterns stretches across the top of the set, with red and gold curtains and theatre boxes on each side.
At the top of the play, these “theatrical” elements open on a minimalist, pleasing arrangement of three steamer-trunk style boxes, two stepladders, and an armchair tucked in the corner.
The theatre also frames this script on a deeper level.
John Buchan wrote the original story in 1915 as what he called a “shocker.” In Wikipedia’s definition that is “an adventure where the events in the story are unlikely and the reader is only just able to believe that they really happened.”
So from the start, it was written as something completely dependent on the viewer’s willing suspension of disbelief.
Patrick Barlow’s play is based more on Alfred Hitchcock’s film version of the story than on the original book. I have seen plays based on films that bombed, partly because they did not understand the differences between the two media.
Mostly, they tried to be too realistic, to duplicate the film.
But theatre runs on our complicity. Just as Anabella Schmidt (Carrie Burgess) invites Hannay to become “involved” in her spy story, running her hands up his lapels, we too become involved.
We suspend our disbelief as the actors create a stunning variety of environments with a very simple set. No one in the audience was wishing for flies with realistic set pieces moving up and down.
What we got was so much funnier. The more they asked of our imaginations, the funnier it got.
When two ersatz policemen order Pamela (also Burgess) into the car, she asks, “What car?”, and they say, “Oh,” and proceed to build it out of two boxes, two folding chairs, and a music stand for a steering wheel.
It’s not realistic. It’s awesome theatre. Good work, cast and director Clinton Walker.
We know from the beginning that it’s not going to be realistic. Maratos is a bit over the top as Hannay, but he’s nothing like Burgess as Anabella Schmidt. Everything becomes heightened once Hannay steps into that theatre, and it doesn’t let up till the end.
Burgess moves like a dancer, using big, stylized gestures. It’s almost self-spoofing. And it tells us how far we’ll have to suspend our disbelief, what it will cost us to get “involved”.
Eric Epstein and Anthony Trombetta as the Clowns play an incredible variety of roles with a great shared sense of timing. They keep us beautifully in the present.
Though their performances are well-rehearsed, there’s a sense of freshness and discovery that made me feel, for example, like they really did have the idea for the car just then.
Costume designers Kaori Torigai and Rosie Stuckless created perfect costumes. They also had to figure out how to rig the costumes to do some crazy-quick changes.
But who were the stage hands? There’s a list of four assistant stage managers. We saw two stage hands also wearing costumes as servants and bobbies.
I love watching efficient, rehearsed set changing. These folks gave convincing little cameos in those moments.
A smoke machine gave us steam engine smoke and the foggy Scottish moors.
And there’s a wonderful shadow puppet chase scene with dogs and airplanes created by properties manager Amber Church.
If you’re looking for a deep, soul-searching theatrical experience, this isn’t the show for you. We approach the profound when Hannay has to improvise an election speech hiding his handcuffed wrist, with police officers waiting in the wings.
The character is himself performing a role he doesn’t even know. Nevertheless he seems to speak from his heart as he pleads for kindness, for a world where people help each other.
But mostly, the show works on the level of a hoot.
In the Guild Hall’s Other Room (OR), you can also see a show of paintings called The Junk Mail Menagerie by Amber Church, who also did props and scenic painting on the show. Church assembled polygons from junk mail she received during the last election.
She painted whimsical stylized animals on them with black outlines and cartoon-like black and white eyes.
Audiences will be laughing at The 39 Steps till February 25.