Actors enhance suspense with slapstick

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March 13, 2013

The 39 Steps
Langham Court Theatre
Directed by Keigh Digby and Cynthia Pronick
Adapted by Patrick Barlow from Alfred Hitchcock and John Buchan
Ends March 23, 2013

Reviewed by Leah Callen

Langham Court’s The 39 Steps is North by Northwest meets Laurel and Hardy. One part old Hollywood and two parts vaudeville, it gives a self-conscious nod to both stage and screen magic.  As the audience got lost in fog and the laughter of the lady next to me ran off the tracks, I flashbacked to knee-slapping pantomimes I saw while growing up in EnglandGorblimey. In fact, I’m typing this review with one hand and sipping Earl Grey with the other.

A falsely accused man-on-the-run escapes into and out of the arms of the wrong women. Richard is dying of bachelor boredom in wartime London when he and a seductive secret agent hit it off with a bang at the theatre. His excitement begins. This production winked at us with charming Hitchcockian allusions, from a bad guy who sports a wig from Psycho to a police chase that exists through the rear window. It would make a fun drinking game, raising a glass each time one of Hitchcock’s movies flashes us – if drinking were allowed in the theatre. One has fun spotting them nonetheless. Film projections were a delightful, theatrical element here; the medium is perfect for a play adapted from a movie. I wish it had been used more throughout.

The play also pokes fun at the limits of theatre with self-destructing props, intentionally missed queues and phones that ring long after they’re answered.  The slapstick made up for some inevitable predictability in plotting for the genre. The tongue-in-cheek approach is the marmalade that makes all the cloak-and-dagger easier to swallow.

The actors wore many fedoras and grew more comfortable with madcap character changes as the play galloped along. Alan Penty played the lead, Richard Hannay, who gets more dashing as he’s chased across countries. Handcuffed against his will to button-faced Pamela, he is forced to face his deepest fear: commitment. In a clever, mute moment, Richard has no choice but to caress her legs with his cuffed hand while she removes her stockings one-by-one, and he holds a sandwich. Talk about restrained appetites. Penty was humorously human as craziness rained down on him.

Karen Brelsford took on the Vertigo-esque challenge of portraying with chameleon ease prim Pamela,  Annabella the spy and man-hungry Margaret. It was fascinating seeing her adapt her energies to match each new wig.  Nick Sepi and Toshik Bukowiecki were masters of quick change, playing everything from the milkman to dancing Nazis. Nick was straight out of Monty Python as he juggled accents and gestures.  He was so hilarious that I wanted to take him home as my dinner guest. Toshik was at ease in both skirts and kilts. He handled outrageous characters with unbelievable naturalism. He was the favourite of the man sitting behind me.

Some transitions were inspired and others a bit clunky, but it’s forgivable since the play is so darn funny. One scene ending featured a train-whistle scream that shifted us into a train car. The choreography that followed was simply brilliant. Hitchcock would be proud. The strobe light effect seemed an unnecessary staging device and just gave me a headache. But overall, this was a successful marriage between theatre and film. I give it two guns up.


Leah Callen is a budding poet-playwright-screenwriter studying at the University of Victoria.


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