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Review: The 39 Steps at Wildfire Lounge

Review by Giddy Pillai

Richard Hannay is approximately 37, about 5 foot 10, with a shock of salt and pepper hair, piercing brown eyes and a very attractive period-inappropriate moustache. We meet him in a fog of middle-aged, middle-class boredom, which he’s promptly jolted out of when a mysterious woman is murdered in his apartment, leaving him wanted by both local police as well as an underground Nazi spy ring known as the 39 Steps. Forced on the run through rural Scotland, he encounters an eccentric array of characters in his quest to save his skin and clear his name.

Hannay has had as many lives and as worn as many faces as James Bond. The 39 Steps began as a World War I themed novel written by John Buchan. In 1935, in the leadup to World War II, a pre-Hollywood Alfred Hitchcock adapted the book into what has become a cult classic. Two more film adaptations, a radio play, a TV series and a comic book followed. Most recently Patrick Barlow fashioned the story into a madcap Tony award-winning parody, in which the full 100+ strong cast of characters is brought to life by four actors working overtime. Since its debut in 2005, Barlow’s 39 Steps has travelled all across the globe, and has played host to over 50 Richard Hannays.

This latest version of Barlow’s play is brought to life by sustainable theatre company Blinking Light Theatre in the velvet-curtained basement of Glebe’s Wildfire Lounge. It’s a good time, with many laughs conjured up by a talented, generous cast. David Halgren turns in a wonderful performance as the latest Richard Hanney. He expertly juxtaposes a lazy, upper-class British accent with decisively eccentric physical comedy to hilarious effect, and combines this with an emotional groundedness that makes Hanney’s rising panic palpable and anchors the whole production. Izabella Louk plays a memorable trio of Hanney’s potential love interests – an embattled secret agent, the kindly wife of a sadistic sheep farmer and a reluctant travelling companion intent on turning him in. The remaining 100 or so roles are handled by two ‘clowns’, played by Ellen Coote and Sophie Douglas. They transform fluidly into a succession of multi-accented characters who feel at once ridiculous and three-dimensional. Impressive direction and lighting design by Dany Akbar ties the production together nicely. Barlow’s script is a movie-length parody of Hitchcock’s film, and Akbar plays with pace and dramatic lighting to create a cinematic, film noir feel that adds a lot to the show.

The cosy theatre space at Wildfire Lounge adds an interesting dynamic to the production. It’s a tiny room, and on opening night it’s packed full. The actors are right amongst the audience for a good portion of the show. This provides a great opportunity for an intimate, immersive production, but one that’s challenging to pull off. The 39 Steps is an over the top, off the wall play, and the obliteration of physical space between the players and the audience means that the cast have to strike a difficult balance between bringing enough energy to make the show fly and ensuring the audience feel relaxed and comfortable. This is well-handled, but I can’t help but wonder whether a slightly larger space might help the work shine even more.

Barlow’s script is a tight, almost scene-by-scene parody of Hitchcock’s version of The 39 Steps. With that in mind, I do think that to really get the most out of this show it’s helpful to be familiar with the movie, or to have an interest in Hitchcockian cinema or the film noir genre in general. I came in as a total neophyte, and while I certainly enjoyed my share of belly laughs, there were points when I felt that the script lagged a little and some of the jokes didn’t quite land for me. Afterwards, I went home and watched the movie, and could appreciate that the parts that went over my head were full of cleverly written in-jokes, that were enhanced by Blinking Light’s production choices. But this is a show with plenty of guaranteed laughs regardless, and if you’re a fan of farce or vaudeville cabaret, I expect you’ll enjoy it a lot.

Image Credit: Troy Kent


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