The 39 Steps

Fortune Theatre, Dunedin

21/05/2010 - 12/06/2010

Production Details

Written by: John Buchan and Alfred Hitchcock
Adapted by Patrick Barlow
From an original concept by Simon Corble and Nobby Dimon

Directed by Hilary Norris

JOHN BUCHAN and ALFRED HITCHCOCK’S GRIPPING WHODUNNIT, THE 39 STEPS, is THRILLINGLY ADAPTED FOR THE STAGE and is a MAMMOTH HIT in London, New York and all over the world including even Wellington.
Nothing has been spared to bring you this SUPREMELY FUNNY AND SPECTACULAR spoof of a SPELLBINDING British thriller. Legendary scenes include:
See FOUR ACTORS PLAYING 139 ROLES (or thereabouts)!

Old fashioned GOODIES AND BADDIES! SUSPENSE, and altogether DIZZYING ACTION in this CLASSIC ADVENTURE STORY about a man on the run.

The Fortune’s production features favourite Dunedin physical comedy actors Patrick Davies, Mark Neilson and Danny Still, with Anna Henare (Wuthering Heights’ Cathy) playing most of the female roles. Hilary Norris will attempt to direct them in this production of ‘pure and utter silliness’, in which Alfred Hitchcock’s film and John Buchan’s book meet the Goons, Monty Python, even Peter Seller’s Dr Strangelove –  in fact just about every British comedy act you’ve ever roared with laughter at! 


Showtimes: Sun 4 pm, Tues 6pm, Wed – Sat 7.30pm, MAY 21- JUNE 12
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Lunacy, hilarity and charm

Review by Terry MacTavish 24th May 2010

The 39 Steps is rollicking fun from start to finish, the delicious light-hearted silliness tossed off with zesty exuberance by a razzle-dazzling cast. And oh joy, all can be proudly claimed as Dunedinites, under the direction of indefatigable Hilary Norris, who has been a loyal Fortune stalwart for no less than 35 years. 

This award-winning West End and Broadway hit is an absurd and delightful spoof of the Hitchcock film of 1935, which was based on the 1915 novel by John Buchan. The classic thriller, all one long chase scene in which the British hero bravely evades police as he hunts German spies, could come across as merely quaintly nostalgic. That world has gone forever, surely. 

But there is a twist that will enchant those who prize theatre above both book and film: just four actors re-enact all the roles of the movie, on a stage that is almost bare. So we are credited with an understanding of traditional boys-own derring-do and the ‘shocker’ genre, while being entertained with all the gorgeous nonsense of improvisational theatre. This affectionate tribute, too tongue-in-cheek to be chilling, is chiefly a showcase for stunning acting technique.

The set consists merely of a ladder lashed between two more, ready to become the Forth Railway Bridge, plus a few trunks for railway carriages or lecterns, and peripatetic frames for a door and a window; yet the actor’s magic, with a little help from sound and lighting technology, turns it into anything from London’s West End to the wild Scottish moors.

The plot barely matters, but briefly, heroic Englishman Richard Hannay is bored with London after his adventures in the colonies (“Carruthers was eaten by crocodiles in the Limpopo”). Seeking something ‘mindless and trivial’, he visits the theatre, where seated in the Fortune’s front row, he finds instead a glamorous spy so very foreign she makes ‘involved’ sound like ‘enfilthed’. She is murdered in his flat, after revealing that the 39 Steps is a spy gang determined to steal military secrets to use against Britain in the coming war – WW1 for the novel, WW2 for the movie.

(In case anyone cares, in the book the hero is racing to locate a house on the coast with exactly 39 steps leading down to the sea and a boat waiting to whisk the stolen plans to the enemy government. Ah, those innocent pre-twitter days…)

Hannay must crack the gang to prove his innocence and save the country, which entails a wild dash by train to Scotland, encountering an extraordinary variety of zany characters in the process. All but three of these are played by Patrick Davies and Danny Still, both outstanding physical comedians, juggling characters with ease, and delighting in sending up many of the stage conventions on which they rely. Although their costume changes are lightning fast and their timing superb, they relish any slip-ups that give them the opportunity to employ their hilarious improvisational skills. “Whoops, not yet!” trills Davies, entering too soon as a gawky Scottish landlady, and backing hastily, “Take your own time, dears!” 

The 39 Steps would seem to be an apt book for an attack by actors, sorry, a stage adaptation, for it deals with the psychology of disguise, as practised by both Hannay and his enemies. “If you are playing a part, you will never keep it up unless you convince yourself that you are it,”writes Buchan. “A fool tries to look different: a clever man looks the same and is different.” 

But with over a hundred characters to make different, it takes actors with Still’s and Davies’ expertise to back flip – sometimes literally – so convincingly between them.

Among my favourites are the thick milkman and the Professor’s prissy wife, the secret agents who cart their own lamp post round with them, and of course the two manic corset salesmen. And then there is Davies’ fabulously decrepit Scots ancient in sporran and tam-o-shanter, Still’s compulsive Mr Memory, and the way they both imaginatively ring the changes on the endless stream of baffled Mr Plods. Funniest of all is the most extravagantly indulgent death scene you will ever see, magnificently enacted in a theatre-box high above the stage.

Mark Neilson, marvellous as ever, makes a terrific absurd hero, fleeing his pursuers in grand style, but pausing every now and then to encourage us to admire his piercing blue eyes and pencil moustache. His manly courage in swinging across the mighty Forth Railway Bridge is matched only by his tactful delicacy when the lady to whom he is handcuffed must remove her stockings. Although the nearest to the ‘straight man’, Neilson clearly enjoys insinuating himself into the improvisational frolics, snapping ‘Get on with it!’ when his colleagues are in danger of being carried away with their own cleverness.

Buchan’s plot certainly did not allow for romantic interests, but Hitchcock was having none of that, and indeed it would have been a shame to miss the trio of females who help or hinder our hero. The very versatile Anna Henare supports Neilson nobly, switching wigs and accents confidently as the mysterious foreigner stabbed so spectacularly, the Scottish crofter’s gum booted wife, and of course the sassy blonde who spars with Hannay before being handcuffed to him, necessitating the titillating bed-sharing scene. (Have no fears for her virtue: Hannay is naturally a gentleman!) 

And finally the busiest ever stage managers Louise Jakeway and Rebekah Sherrat also valiantly pop on and off stage as assorted non-speaking characters – well, as sheep they do baa a bit! 

There could not be a better show for beating the winter blues. The fast and furious lunacy induces a sort of euphoria in the audience, with belly laughs and spontaneous outbreaks of applause bearing testimony to the hilarity and charm of this mad romp. 
For more production details, click on the title above. Go to Home page to see other Reviews, recent Comments and Forum postings (under Chat Back), and News. 


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Ripping yarn has audience in stitches

Review by Barbara Frame 24th May 2010

Mad, completely mad. The 39 Steps, now playing at the Fortune, has been convulsing audiences all over the world for the last few years. This is its third incarnation, adapted by Patrick Barlow from Alfred Hitchcock’s 1935 film which, in turn, owed much but not everything to John Buchan’s 1915 thriller.

Relying on fast action, amazing coincidences, daring escapes and incredible bravery, it’s also wildly funny, featuring terrible jokes, loads of slapstick and seemingly desperate improvisation.

Mark Neilson plays Richard Hannay, the Englishman keeping a stiff upper lip as he finds himself caught up in a spy story of international importance. Anna Henare takes on three parts, most notably femme fatale Annabella Schmidt, and Patrick Davies and Danny Still play an uncountable number of roles, often changing characters mid-syllable and sometimes even being several people at the same time.

The multi-talented Louise Jakeway and Rebekah Sherratt manage to be everything from scene-shifters to sheep. Thanks to the actors’ versatility, comic skills and split-second timing, and director Hilary Norris’s success at unleashing all sorts of mayhem and keeping it all (just) under control, it’s an exhilarating ride.

One of my favourite scenes showed Neilson and Henare as Hannay and not-quite-dumb blonde Pamela Edwards, handcuffed together, bristling with mutual loathing and trying to negotiate a stile while being pursued by evil foreign spies.

Stephen (Sooty) Kilroy’s lighting helps the impossible (like an escape from a train crossing the Forth Bridge) to happen, and recalls the designs of 1930s film posters and book covers.

If you’ve ever enjoyed spy stories, ripping yarns, vaudeville, silent films, the Goons, Monty Python, or hilarious nights at the theatre, you’ll like The 39 Steps. Friday’s opening-night audience certainly did.
For more production details, click on the title above. Go to Home page to see other Reviews, recent Comments and Forum postings (under Chat Back), and News. 


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