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Review: 39 Steps at Chapel off Chapel

Review by Liz Baldwin

39 Steps, playing at Chapel off Chapel until 17 March, is a rollicking good way to spend a few hours. It’s a non-stop, comic ride all the way through, featuring just four actors playing 150 characters courtesy of a dizzying number of costume (and accent) changes. 

Sorab Kaikobad plays Richard Hannay, a mid-30s ne’er-do-well who is tired of life, until he becomes accidentally embroiled in a spy drama involving the smuggling of secrets out of pre-war Britain, courtesy of a brief encounter with spy Annabella Schmidt (Yvette Turner, in her first of three roles). A zany quest through the Scottish Highlands follows, featuring many encounters with the locals (Charlie Cousins and Jackson McGovern, playing dozens of roles) and an entanglement with upstanding local citizen Pamela Edwards (Turner again).

39 Steps is adapted from Hitchcock’s 1935 film of the same name (in turn based on a novel by John Buchan). But the stage version, originally adapted by Patrick Barlow in 2005, takes many liberties with the source material: think more ‘Monty Python’ or ‘The Play That Goes Wrong’ than archetypally Hitchcockian.

The physical staging of the show is its greatest strength. Scenes involving simple movements delivered some of the biggest laughs: the leaning to and fro of passengers on a train, the bumping up and down of people in a car, the awkward dance (scored to an endless chorus of ‘sorry, excuse me’s) as someone squeezes past other passengers on the train (familiar to any theatregoer!). 

The beauty of the chaos is that even the odd slip-up - an actor briefly getting the giggles, or a moustache sliding down a chin - felt entirely in keeping with the loose nature of the show, and didn’t much detract from the performance.

The production is directed by Charlie Cousins, who also founded the Melbourne-based Hearth Theatre that is behind the show. It’s an impressive interpretation of a challenging show, with a lot of action and characters - not to mention comedy - to fit into two acts. The pacing occasionally dragged when a particular bit, like when two characters attempt to cross a stile while inextricably linked, was carried just one or two repetitions past the point of humour. But overall, it was a tight and disciplined production.

Cousins also shined particularly brightly on stage. He - along with Jackson McGovern - are the hard-working everymen, who pick up every role on stage other than Richard Hannay and his love interests. They effortlessly switch between police officers, Scottish farmers, local politicians, spies, a professor and his wife, and travelling salespeople, to mention only a few. The distinctiveness they lent each character was impressive - each had a different tic - as was their energy across the demanding performance! A scene where both switch between three characters within conversation, rotating hats and accents, was flawlessly executed and a comic highlight. 

Kaikobad and Turner also gave solid performances. Kaikobad’s Hannay adapted to his predicament with great ease, mainly appearing crusty rather than genuinely distressed in the second act. Turner’s strongest role was her third, as Pamela Edwards, where she managed to convey a cool disdain for Hannay and his shenanigans. Her turns as Annette and a Scottish farmer’s wife were a little weaker, tending more toward caricature than character.

39 Steps is a funny, feel-good night out. Get along to Chapel off Chapel to catch this production before it finishes its run!

Image Credit: Cameron Grant


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