Alfred Hitchcock’s adaptation of John Buchan’s 39 Steps left me less than impressed but more than anxious to see Patrick Barlow’s parody at London’s Criterion Theatre. The production concept of this 39 Steps boasted of the spectrum of an actor’s abilities; it was a four-actor play where the exaggerations were never too much and the times between character changes were never enough. The male lead solely kept to his Richard Hannay character, but the female lead played three different characters, Annabelle Schmidt, Pamela, and Margaret, while the two supporting actors were each responsible for several nameless roles. Ironically, these two men become the most memorable.
With only four actors on the cast, the flawless integration of props prevailed past any play I have witnessed, and in my opinion, made the production the satirical success that it is. The largest props, the actors’ bodies, were most profitable in imitating a moving film’s elements. Each time the window opened and the wind blew the characters’ bodies, clothes, and hair or each time the characters were in a vehicle and the braking pushed and halted their bodies, the audience was in uproarious laughter. The changing of hats (police officer, newspaper boy, and train passenger) as well was the 180-degree turning of body and outfit exhibited the actor’s strong ability to maintain character while changing character within one split-second.
All of the actors were impressively conscious of their body language and dialogue simultaneously, but their bodies also shared the stage with a plethora of props and special effects to aid their whimsical pursuits. The flashing lights, in the beginning of the play, acted as the most obvious homage to Hitchcock’s style, and the shower scene, “Psycho”. The fog, lack of and excessiveness of, served as both an excuse for the actors to communicate with the back of the house—much like the telephone scene—and simply, weather. The music equally dramatized the play’s aspects of playful suspense and suggestive romance, a cue for the actors to step a little closer and the audience to giggle a little longer.
39 Steps transformed a small stage theatre into an edgeless canvas of performance art. The shadow puppetry mimicking the chase scene demonstrated how primary school arts and crafts could be the perfect solution to a theatre’s limited landscape and terrain. The turning doors and moving windowsills amusingly replicated the architecture and interior design of houses and buildings at the actors’ disposal. Returning to the incorporation of bodies, the two supporting actors running to and fro in black hooded coats to parrot the bumps and humps of Scotland’s countryside was a resourceful alternative.
Now, in remembrance that this play was written as a parody for the British theatre, it is time to acknowledge the last, but perhaps most important, element of 39 Steps: the audience. Whether intentionally or not, the play metamorphosed into an interactive piece. With Mr. Memory’s show and Hannay’s impromptu political speech questioning the figurative audience, it proved dubious for the real-life audience to not respond. As the performers and the crowd heard SDSU Professor William Nericcio’s resonant “No!” in response to Hannay’s rhetorical question, anyone can see how invested the audience becomes in the performance. Live performances are often driven by a performer’s emotions, but here, we witness the overpowering emotions of an audience, British and foreigners alike, in raucous laughter and growing affection for the four actors and their many characters.