Play Review: 39 Steps at Player’s Theatre

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Originally published as a novel in 1915, the literary classic 39 Steps has been adapted for both theatre and film. In 1935, Alfred Hitchcock directed his film adaption of the novel, The 39 Steps, telling the story of a bored British man named Richard Hannay who is attempting to clear his name after being unknowingly drawn into a web of conspiracies involving international spies. The play follows Hannay as he travels through the Scottish Highlands in an effort to redeem his reputation. Along the way the protagonist meets dozens of absurd characters, even falling for three femmes. Now brought to McGill’s Players’ Theatre, students are putting their own unique spin on the classic. 

Players’ Theatre is completely run by undergraduate students, bringing theatre opportunities to both McGill and Montreal area students. A cast of four, the performance requires diversity from the actors, with three of the four playing multiple and recurring roles throughout.

A clever and amusing opening to the performance brought Hannay, played by Tom Phipps, to the theatre lobby to introduce himself, the setting, and the backstory of the plot. Inviting the audience members into the theater, viewers were seated as if they were in the London Music Hall—the setting of the first scene. This involvement of the audience continued throughout the production and only increased in hilarity. The audience  was sometimes directly addressed by a cast member, and other times was showered in props such as newspapers. By the third scene, not a single audience member was able to withhold their laughs.

The last word that comes to mind when describing 39 Steps is “boring.” Frédérique Blanchard and Ben Meyer-Goodman are the two shining stars of the production, juggling dozens of roles between the two of them and providing much of the energy for the entirety of the show. Stylistically inspired by Monty Python, this adaption of 39 Steps takes on a slapstick tone. Slow moving and quiet moments are scarce, leaving the audience constantly engaged. The stage’s close proximity  to the audience aids in captivating viewers as well.

The performance is a chaotic jumble of fast-paced exits and entrances, prop changes, and even a few onstage costume alterations. Director Oscar Lecuyer took appreciated and effective risks with stage props. The audience becomes comfortable in the imaginary world of theatre, only to be reminded that they’re witnessing a live performance. One scene found the characters signaling towards a car, only to realize they had yet to ‘create’ the car out of stage blocks and frantically build it on stage. This drew audience members out of their comfort zone by breaking the fourth wall and acknowledging the reality behind performing arts.

When taking a traditionally dramatic play and turning it into such a comedic adaptation, it’s important that no characters are left behind in the transformation of genres—just as the character of Pamela, played by Jocelyn Weisman, unfortunately did. Her character’s more dramatic demeanour stood in awkward contrast with the play’s humorous characters. Blanchard and Meyer-Goodman’s many characters provided the majority of comedic relief with additional witticism from Hannay, but Pamela remained flat and frustrated. The entirety of the performance was light-hearted and meant to capitalize on silliness, yet the Pamela’s irritated persona didn’t mesh well with the style of the play or the characters she interacted with. 

As the final ten minutes of the show rushed to a conclusion, the eccentrics of the play remained stable. The play follows the threat of German spies colluding to destabilize Europe, and yet, the overtly exaggerated clowning often overshadowed this major theme. Granted, the most enjoyable aspect of the production was that—even for skeptics of the Hitchcock/ Monty Python hybrid—the humour isn’t lost on any member of the audience. While not particularly thought-provoking, 39 Steps is a refreshing and charming performance that succeeds in producing candid laughter.

39 Steps is playing October 19-22 and October 22-26 in Players’ Theatre (3rd floor of SSMU). General tickets are $10 and student tickets are $6.

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