The Thirty-Nine Steps

Maidment Theatre, Auckland

12/02/2009 - 07/03/2009

Production Details

Lisa Chappell and Mike Edward star in THE THIRTY-NINE STEPS, the hilarious whodunit thriller and quick-change comedy adaptation of John Buchan’s classic spy novel which opens Auckland Theatre Company’s 2009 season at the Maidment Theatre on February 12.

Mix a juicy espionage masterpiece, add a dash of Black Adder, a riotous blend of virtuoso performances and wildly inventive stagecraft and you have THE THIRTY-NINE STEPS a fast-paced whodunit for anyone who loves the magic of theatre!

"I have found myself at the centre of an international conspiracy where the defence of the realm is at stake!" Richard Hannay

THE THIRTY-NINE STEPS begins as Richard Hannay, seeking a frivolous night out at the theatre, is lured into a world of intrigue by a mysterious American claiming to be a spy. When the American winds up dead in his flat, Hannay flees London with a unusual one-eyed spy and the police hot on his trail.

Complete with stiff upper lip and a miraculous knack of getting himself into and out of sticky situations, Hannay encounters dastardly murders, double crossing secret agents and, of course, devastatingly beautiful women, in a race against time to save the British Empire.

"Absurdly enjoyable! This gleefully theatrical riff on Buchan’s novel is fast and frothy, performed by a cast of four that seems like a cast of thousands." The Press

Joined by Cameron Rhodes and Stephen Papps, Chappell and Edwards take on all 160 zany characters as well as driving trains, sailing a dreadnaught, flying a bi-plane and even piloting an invading zeppelin in this frightfully British summer show.

International awarding winning actress Lisa Chappell returns to Auckland Theatre Company to reprise the role of the devastatingly beautiful femme fatal which she delivered with such great aplomb in the company’s 2008 summer show, DESIGN FOR LIVING.

Chappell, who is best known for her role as Claire McLeod on McLEOD’S DAUGHTERS, won the Silver Logie for the Most Popular Actress on Australian Television in 2004. She was also nominated for two Golden Logies for Best Actress on Australian Television in 2003 and 2004.

THE THIRTY-NINE STEPS is directed by Ross Gumbley, artistic director of Christchurch’s The Court Theatre, "I’m really excited to be directing in Auckland and that our two companies are working together on this production. It can only bode well for theatre in New Zealand when the country’s two largest theatre companies work together. I hope this is the first of much collaboration."

THE THIRTY-NINE STEPS promises to be an unforgettable evening of pure entertainment! Tickets can be purchased at Maidment Theatre, 308 2383 or

Mike Edward — Richard Hannay
Lisa Chappell — Doris, Julia Urquart, Paperboy, Angus Jnr, Lucy
Stephen Papps — Walter, Paddock, The Milkman, Wallis, Inspector, Angus, Barclay, The Colonel, Sir Harry, James, Agnes
Cameron Rhodes — Marmaduke Mesmer, Franklin P Scudder, Barnes, Policeman, The Engineer, A British Seaman, Gibson, Alexander Turnbull, Bi-Plane Pilot, Deacon McNaught, Twisdon, Tarquin Jopley, Lord Carmichael, Zeppelin Pilot

Set Design — Tony Geddes & Ross Gumbley (Developed from the original design by Tony Geddes for The Court Theatre(
Lighting Design — Brad Gledhill
Costume Design — Elizabeth Whiting
Sound Design Adaptation — Eden Mulholland

Production Manager — Mark Gosling
Technical Manager — Bonnie Burrill
Stage Manager — Mitchell Turei
Operator — Robert Hunte
Properties Master — Bec Ehlers
Wardrobe Supervisor — Cathy Pope
Set Construction — 2 Construct
Costume Construction — Cathy Pope & Sophie Ham

1hr 35 mins, no interval

Story secondary to antics

Review by Nik Smythe 16th Feb 2009

ATC’s opening gambit for their 09 season is a rollicking slapstick spectacle. John Buchan’s classic bestselling thriller (Buchan called them ‘shockers’) was written in 1915, and set a year earlier on the eve of world war one. 

Mike Edward has what many claim to be the hardest job – playing the straight(est) role of prototype gentleman hero Richard Hannay.  Looking the part, and deftly adept in the physicality of the role, his character is more poncey than dashing, a tad wanting for the cool confidence and sensual charm essential to the gentleman adventurer. 

Encountering an American spy who just has time to relay a few cryptic details of an international assassination plot before being offed with the archetypal knife in the back, Hannay embarks on a perilous journey to bust the evil conspirators whilst evading the legal authorities due to his implication in the murder of said spy.

Really though, plot details are irrelevant, as is the expectation for any genuine suspense.  This production is not aiming for chilling drama, nor is it making any pertinent political statements as far as I can see; if there are any they are seriously upstaged by the clear mission of this intrepid company – they are having a laugh.

Lisa Chappell showcases her versatile skill with a range of classes and types.  As the sole female performer she plays Hannay’s accomplice and love interest Julia Urquhart, a most refined lady but game for action (not in the book).  Chappell extends far beyond the beautiful straight roles she is more known for in television.  Her handful of other roles include various working class types and an incorrigible 5 year old girl channelling her conveniently psychic rag doll to reveal a vital clue. 

Cameron Rhodes and Stephen Papps cover the remaining twenty plus roles – the promotional claim there are 130* seems to be as exaggerated as the rest of the production.  Both veterans of multi-character performances, Rhodes and Papps supply a rich and convincing cross-section of society’s haves and have-nots.  Indeed there could be no better casting choice for the requirements of this piece.

Although adapted by Gumbley from the 1915 novel [for last year’s Court Theatre production], there was more than one nod to the classic 1935 Hitchcock, as well as a cheeky reference to Strangers on a Train…there may have been others.  In the spirit of the work, why the heck not?

By and large, the players are directed to fine comedic levels by Ross Gumbley.  Every step of the way the action is farcical, taking any opportunity to slip in a gag provided it’s in keeping with the genre – sort of Carry On Spying if you will.

The Set design of Tony Geddes and Gumbley is adequately breathtaking, enhanced to truly impressive levels by the exemplary lighting design of Brad Gledhill.  The dynamically self-aware special effects provide a number of spectacular highlights, like the models of various planes, trains and vessels.  My favourite was the hilarious car chase/gunfight between Hannay and the one-eyed man (Rhodes), Chappell and Papps evoking passing lampposts and obstructions etc.  Only the timing of the train-bridge jump was less than successful on opening night.

From what I’ve observed about Elizabeth Whiting’s costume design over the years, she excels and evidently revels in assignments that call for period dress.  This production is a definitive case in point, and the authenticity of the clothing truly helps to transport us to this classic era of almost a century ago.

As much fun as both the audience and cast are clearly having, I confess to being left a little wanting for any actual gripping suspense.  The storyline, whilst more or less making sense, does appear secondary to the slapstick antics and ingenious theatrical solutions, and ingenious they are to be sure.  Thus, patrons are happily escorted through an hour and a half’s cleverness, without necessarily giving them a great deal to take away and contemplate or consider.

*[EG: "Four fearless actors play 139 roles in 100 madcap minutes" according to the promo run by Eventfinder. The programme lists 31 roles, not counting passing lampposts, etc – ED]


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Season opener good for a laugh despite gaps

Review by Paul Simei-Barton 16th Feb 2009

Auckland Theatre Company’s season opener is a bubbly confection that gently lampoons the intrepid heroism of John Buchan’s tautly written thriller set in the tumultuous years leading to the outbreak of World War I.

The show captures something of the original’s rollicking sense of adventure, and the high-spirited cast has great fun staging action sequences that feature zeppelins, low-swooping biplanes and a frantic chase on a fast-moving train. [More]


Lola Orlando February 18th, 2009

I make a habit of going into most plays as ignorant as possible in the hopes of being surprised and or even better.. entertained!

It took a few minutes for me to warm the main character, 'just another actor, acting like a poncey git'. But it didn't take long for Mike Edward's command of body and stage to get me hooked.  The characters that appeared in the hypnosis scene were annoying and poorly timed, but by then the feeling that this was just a good giggle had set in and could be over looked. Cameron Rhodes and Stephen Papps were wonderful, if not a tad creepy at times and were a pleasure to watch.

The role of Julia Urquhart played by Lisa Chappell never really had a chance to deepen, I found her to be a rather two dimensional character dressed in wonderful costumes. I enjoyed this play, I agree with Smythe that the plot was superfluous to the slapstick shenanigans, but this said, I hoped to be entertained and that I was. Ross Gumbley is wonderful and I look forward to seeing anything he puts his hand to.

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