The 39 Steps

Circa One, Circa Theatre, 1 Taranaki St, Waterfront, Wellington

21/01/2010 - 13/02/2010

Circa One, Circa Theatre, 1 Taranaki St, Waterfront, Wellington

18/07/2009 - 15/08/2009

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: Peter Hambleton

By arrangement with Edward Snape, For Fiery Angel Limited

The World-wide Smash-Hit Comedy Classic!

John Buchan and Alfred Hitchcock’s THE 39 STEPS

A massive hit in London’s West End, New York and all over the world, this gripping comedy thriller is pure entertainment. Four fabulous actors play 139 roles in 100 minutes of fast-paced fun and hilarious action, in a classic adventure story about a man on the run.

A supremely funny spoof of Alfred Hitchcock’s classic movie, The 39 Steps brings you laughs, suspense, old fashioned goodies and baddies, plus dizzying wit that will leave you laughing for days.

Don’t miss it!

Check out the hilarious Video Trailer of the show, screening live on the interweb : 

Proudly sponsored by: The Dominion Post
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18 July − 15 August 2009
Tue – Wed 6.30pm
Thu – Sat 8.00pm
Sun 4.00pm

Return season
21 January − 13 February 2010
Tue – Wed 6.30pm
Thu – Sat 8.00pm
Sun 4.00pm

Adults $38
Students, senior citizens and beneficiaries $30
Friends of Circa (until 30 July) $28
Groups 6+ $32; Groups 100+ $29




Julian Wilson MAN 1 etc

Tim Spite MAN 2 etc


Set Design Andrew Foster

Lighting Design Jennifer Lal

Costume Design Gillie Coxill

Sound Design Gil Eva Craig


Stage Management Pat McIntosh

Publicity Paul McLaughlin

Technical Operator Thomas Press

ASM Emma Carruthers

Choreography Sarah Foster

Movement Captain Tim Spite

Set Construction John Hodgkins, Iain Cooper

Graphic Design Yasmine El Orfi @ NEOGINE

Photography Stephen A'Court

House Manager Suzanne Blackburn

Box Office Linda Wilson 

Stands up better than well to a second visit

Review by Maryanne Cathro 22nd Jan 2010

It’s not often one gets to see a production twice, especially several months apart, and even rarer to see the same story told in two totally different shows. I am in the fortunate position of having had both these privileges. In 2007 I saw the Court production adapted by Ross Gumbley from the original novel, and in Wellington I have now seen both seasons of the show adapted by Patrick Barlow from Hitchcock’s 1935 movie.  

It is tempting to compare these two shows subjectively because of their similarities, however the joy of each lies in their differences.

So why are we so lucky to have two brilliant versions of this story on NZ stages? Apparently, like all good comedy, it was in the timing. In 2006 Ross read a review of the show but the rights were not yet available so in good Kiwi tradition, he decided to do it himself. Deliberately avoiding the Barlow script lest it subconsciously influence the result, he went to Buchan’s original novel for inspiration.

“I was drawn to the darkness of the novel, the paranoia of seeing spies everywhere,” says Ross. “In 2006 the world was experiencing some of that paranoia and so it seemed timely to work with that darkness. Hannay is a paranoid character, and I wanted to paint the other characters through his eyes, which makes them larger than life.”

There’s a big point of difference. I am sure that if questioned, Barlow would not have a deeper motivation for his script than extracting as much humour as possible. Whatever lies beneath the entertainment factor however, the end result is on a par.

I am in two minds about comedy – I want to prefer comedy that has an underlying message but I equally love comedy that is just uncomplicatedly funny. In both cases, however it has to work. And in both of these cases, it does.

Last night I found myself laughing anew at the antics of Tim Spite and Julian Wilson.

I cannot decide what was funniest: Julian Wilson playing a palsied octogenarian trying to put his glasses on, or Tim Spite simultaneously playing two characters, one comforting the other’s grief. Or maybe together, being a two person Highland band, just running on the spot (it’s amazing how funny things can be when done by comedy genii!), or their BYO lamplight routine. They are a comedy duo that we must hope will work together again. And again. Move over Mitchell and Webb. (If I’m not inspiring you to go and see for yourselves then I apologise; maybe the kind of physical humour this show thrives on is beyond written description!)

Cohen Holloway’s and Serena Cotton’s job it is to play the ‘straight’ characters. The secret of a straight character, I feel, is in their playing it absolutely straight, and mostly they do this to great effect. Cohen is a charming and breezy Richard Hannay; quite different from Robert Donat’s sardonic hero from the film. I would have liked a bit more film noir and a little less Bertie Wooster from him, although I do sympathise that it may be hard to hold it together under such comedic pressure! While Serena Cotton shows her comic ability playing Margaret the crofter’s homesick wife, she also captures the fey and sassy attitude of the classic 1930’s femme to great effect.

Everything about this tight and professional show works beautifully: Andrew Foster’s set design creates many an opportunity for humour and rather than slowing down the pace, the opportunities presented by set changes simply add to the fun. Jennifer Lal yet again shows why she is one of the best lighting designers in New Zealand, and the sound scapes provided by Gil Eva Craig add a whole new dimension to the imagination. The costumes that play such tribute to the film, the genre and also function very well in quick change situations are a credit to Gillie Coxill.

So all in all this production stands up better than well to a second visit. Several friends seeing it for the first time were as delighted as they should have been by the evening’s fare.

Thank you Circa for the encore season of this fabulous show. Thank you Ross Gumbley for being too impatient to wait for the rights. I am a very lucky theatre goer indeed.
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.


Guru Ted January 26th, 2010

The show was very well done, and would rate as one of the best shows I've seen in town for quite a while.

skillet January 22nd, 2010

OMG I agree, if Tim Spite and Julian Wilson don't work together again it will be sadder for us all.  Whoever cast them together in this obviously didn't expect sanity!   They fed off each other and off the audience and created an entire show of laugh out loud comedy - at times they were almost out of control.  Thank you whoever had the vision to entertain us in this way.

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Step up for laughs

Review by Priyanka Bhonsule (Hutt News) 28th Jul 2009

Not counting Comedy Festival shows, it’s been a while since a play saw audiences belly-laughing and Circa’s new production The 39 Steps manages that and so much more.

A week since its opening, the show is still a sell-out, drawing audiences of all ages to its mixture of physical and surprisingly clever comedy.

The 39 Steps is an affectionate spoof of John Buchan’s novel and Alfred Hitchcock’s film of the same name, adapted to the stage by Patrick Barlow, and directed here in Wellington by Peter Hambleton.

Cohen Holloway plays Richard Hannay, an ordinary English man, rather bored with his life of parties and mindless conversations when he meets a woman Annabelle Schmidt (Serena Cotton who plays two other parts as well) after a show.

From that evening on, his life takes a turn for the sinister, as Richard is on the run from a crime he did not commit, trying to get to Scotland to solve a mystery he doesn’t fully understand.

The literally hundreds of characters he meets along the way, from lingerie salesmen on the train to wizened old politicos, are all played superbly by Tim Spite and Julian Wilson.

The pure physical comedy of these two actors, changing costumes in a blink of an eye, putting on accents and mannerisms just as swiftly, created a whirlwind of laughter, often lasting well after the gag was over, with the audience trying to suppress giggles as the next bit of comedy surely wasn’t far.

In this whirlwind of characters is the pipe-smoking, cool, calm and collected Mr Hannay, played consummately by Holloway who seems to enjoy himself immensely on stage; indeed, at times he struggled to keep the smile off his face at the brilliant comedy of the other two actors.

Cotton plays all her three parts expertly – the uber-mysterious Annabella, the lonely farmer’s wife Margaret and finally, Richard’s reluctant love interest, Pamela.

Wilson and Spite deserve the greatest accolades for what must have been an exhausting two hours of acting, with the most complex bits of costume and prop changes, but such is their confidence and ability that even the slightly lamer gags seem endearing.

There are too many outstanding characters to mention but a few stand out – the Scottish couple that put up Richard and Pamela up for the night in their inn; the aged old political campaigners and Professor and Mrs Jordan were absolute highlights.

If the recession is getting you down or swine flu is causing concern, take heart in the old adage that laughter is truly the best medicine and book yourself in quick smart to see The 39 Steps.  
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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Witty winter warm-up

Review by Ewen Coleman [Reproduced with permission of Fairfax Media] 20th Jul 2009

There must be something about a production when it receives three rounds of applause –  including one for the opening voice over reminding patrons to turn off their cell phones – within 5 minutes of the show starting and there certainly is with Circa Theatre’s The 39 Steps – Patrick Barlow’s spoof of the 1935 Alfred Hitchcock movie of John Buchan’s novel. 

The play exactly reproduces every scene, location and character in Hitchcock’s film, from Richard Hannay watching a performance of Mr Memory at the London Palladium through to the wilds of Scotland where he is pursued and back to the Palladium and Mr Memory’s final gasping performance. And that it is written as a spoof is obvious in this superb production directed by Peter Hambleton.

The setting is a West End proscenium-arched theatre, with full working front curtain and apron stage, cleverly created by designer Andrew Foster and his team to the extent that the actors’ foot-falls have a hollow ring reminiscent of large old style wooden stages.

On this bare space the actors perform unimaginable feats, rushing on and off with props and furniture, changing costumes in the blink of an eye.  The complexities of the show are such that they could be a recipe for disaster. Yet such is the confidence of this production, not only from those on stage but also those working tirelessly off stage, that the show never misses a beat; the pace and momentum, coupled with the style and expertly controlled timing never wavering.

Model trains, live animals and shadow puppets as well as numerable very authentic looking props and costumes are expertly combined with the continually changing lighting and sound effects, and music from Hitchcock’s film. 

Some of the best moments are those when the hero Richard Hannay, played with stoic stiff upper lip by Cohen Holloway, and the numerous heroines, all deliciously played by Serena Cotton gaze longing into each others eyes in a rosy glow of light with violins playing.

But the accolades of the night must go to Julian Wilson and Tim Spite for their skill and versatility in playing the 100 or so other characters, both male and female. Their superb comic timing and incredible energy is this style of theatre at its best, highly theatrical yet totally in control and never over the top, making this a must-see production during these winter months.
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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A ripping if fatuous yarn skilfully told

Review by John Smythe 19th Jul 2009

If utter jolly trivia in the style of Michael Palin & Terry Jones’ Ripping Yarns, with a whiff of the Goon Show, is your idea of a good night out; if watching really clever actors being really clever helps you escape these troubled times, then make sure you see The 39 Steps at Circa.

The show’s vapidity is signalled upfront: in London circa 1935, would-be itinerant Richard Hannay (back from Bulawayo where he’s made his modest pile in mining), bored witless in his West End apartment, diverts himself from leaping out of his window by deciding to do something "mindless and trivial – I know! Go to the theatre!"

Not Shakespeare, Sheridan, Wilde or even those new chaps, Priestley and Coward, but the London Palladium: variety; vaudeville (which some would argue was rife with political satire, but not in this case). The feature act, for the purposes of this play, is Mr Memory, nicely set up at the start to pay of handsomely at the climax. It is at the theatre that things take an unexpected turn …

Eschewing the complexities of the Balkan wars, anarchist politics and the clandestine activities of ‘intelligence’ forces as elucidated in John Buchan’s novel, it is the ‘boys own adventure’ values of yesteryear that are sent up rotten here. There is a strong dramatic narrative spine in Hannay’s becoming a ‘fugitive from justice’, as the prime suspect for a murder he did not commit, while racing against time to foil a dastardly plot to export state secrets which will threaten the security of Great Britain.

Circa has opted for the 2005 adaptation of the Buchan novel (published in 1915 and set just before the outbreak of ‘the great war’) and Alfred Hitchcock film (1935) by English writer Patrick Barlow (whose National Theatre of Brent is famed for its small cast epics). It is the Ross Gumbley adaptation, of the novel only, that has been reviewed here before, directed by Gumbley for the Court in 2007 and the Auckland Theatre Company earlier this year.

By all accounts they are as different from each other as the film was from the novel, with Barlow favouring most of Hitchcock’s radical departures from Buchan. Nevertheless both stage versions use a cast of four (3m, 1f) and pursue the same comic send-up objectives.

A key quest in the Barlow version is to replicate live on stage such famed film action sequences as the chase on The Flying Scotsman, the escape on (or rather under) the Forth Bridge, and the bi-plane pursuit, which this time – thanks to the wonders of shadow puppetry – involves the timely appearance not only of Hitchcock in his cameo, but also of the Loch Ness Monster, to Hannay’s great advantage. A high point.

Behind bright red curtains, and sometimes in front of them, Andrew Foster’s bare board set features deceptively simple staging, with mobile window and door flats, a brace of ladders, a clutch of travelling trunks and the odd item of furniture. Thus – with Jennifer Lal’s dynamic lighting and Gil Eva Craig’s detailed sound design, operated by a tireless Thomas Press – the escape from London to the moors of Scotland at all hours of the day and night is wonderfully evoked.

Further effects are integrated into the madcap action by Pat McIntosh (Stage Manager) and Emma Carruthers (ASM). Gillie Coxill’s excellent costume designs are as crucial to instant character identification as the actors’ dexterity in affecting the changes.

Yes indeed, ladies and gentlemen, for our delectation and persistent amusement, the indefatigable actors are ready, willing and extraordinarily able to astonish us with their splendidly conceived and wittily executed comic performances.

At the still centre of his suddenly swirling world, Cohen Holloway is quietly immaculate as the cravat-wearing, pipe-sucking, pencil-moustachioed Hannay. Too stiff in his upper lip to get aroused in other more beastly ways, he is not averse to a romantic smooch or two en route to saving the realm.  

Consummate comedienne Serena Cotton is strong yet sultry as the doomed Annabella; deliciously desperate as the matrimonially trapped Scottish farmwife Margaret; bolshie yet attracted and ultimately frustrated as Hannay’s obligatory love-interest, Pamela.

All the other multitudinous and multifarious roles are shared by as skilled a pair of comic actors as you may wish to find on the same stage: Julian Wilson and Tim Spite. Herein lies the prime entertainment component: watching them switch from character to character; marvelling at their abilities to transform so utterly, physically and vocally, without missing a beat in carrying the story (such as it is) forward.

Abiding memories include: Wilson’s stroppy milkman; their sleazy salesmen travelling in women’s underwear; Spite’s puritanical Scottish farmer; their variously differentiated constables and detectives; Wilson’s malevolent Professor Jordan and Spite’s slinky Theresa Jordan; their doddery old political campaigners; Spite’s balloon-cheeked bagpipe player … and Wilson’s amazing Mr Memory at The Palladium.

Director Peter Hambleton aligns the creative resources with alacrity, cleverly lowering our expectations with tame gags at the beginning so that the slick stuff to come has greater impact. While some gags consciously outstay their welcomes, the rare true dramatic moment is generally given its due.

One minor quibble: the foil-topped milk bottles are wrong (not brought in until the mid-1950s); the bottles should be vase or carafe-shaped with cardboard tops. That said, somehow the anachronistically modern wares being sold by the Palladium’s Candy Tray Girl (Wilson) seem fine.

A final accolade to Sarah Foster for her choreography, energetically realised by the cast, not least in their curtain call.

As for the title, it seems that every version ever created (the novel, at least three films and two stage adaptations) has ascribed a different meaning to the mysterious clue, "the thirty nine steps", which helps to show how silly the original was and how deserving it is of being lampooned.

In short: a ripping if fatuous yarn skilfully told.
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. 


Maryanne Cathro July 19th, 2009

What a pity they didn't go for Ross Gumbley's version, which is one of the best pieces of theatre I have ever seen. I'm afraid to go and see this one now for fear of finding it wanting by comparison.

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