British comedy: is it that different from American comedy? When walking into The Criterion theatre in Piccadilly Circus to watch a parody of Alfred Hitchcock’s film adaptation of the book 39 Steps by John Buchan, I thought about this question over and over. I feared going into a play where I wouldn’t get the jokes. What if the actors played a joke on something unique to England or Great Britain, hence my fear of just staring awkwardly at the other people laughing because they actually understood the jokes.
Thankfully, these fears were irrelevant once the show started to run. The humorous part of the play relied heavily on slapstick comedy, which most people (including an American student like me) are familiarized with. The clownish antics and silly faces put on by the actors added comic relief to some of the scenes that are originally more serious in tone in Hitchcock’s film. For example, in the original 39 Steps film by Hitchcock, the first kissing scene between Hanney and Pamela is quick, casual, and more improvised. In the parody play, however, this scene was less serious because of the comic relief provided by the actors: exaggerated gestures and movements, cliché romantic song played on the background, dramatic slap at the end, you name it.
Adding on to the humour of the play was the minimal prop usage and how there were only four actors playing several of the characters. In my opinion, these features provided the play with a more improvised and unique feeling to it. For example, there was a scene where a single door prop was all that was needed to make the audience feel as if the actors were walking through several rooms in a house. This was the case too with using a window frame to convey the idea that there was a wall between the farmer and Hanney with the farmer’s wife. I think this was neat because it allowed the audience to use their imagination to fill out the missing parts of the stage. Also, I want to mention that the design of the theater helped in making the audience feel as if they were interacting with the actors. The small theater and stage gave the play a more cozy, intimate atmosphere. I think the director of the play took the size of the theater as an opportunity to make the play more interactive for the audience. For example, the scene of Mr. Memory’s show breaks the 4th wall because it uses the audience of the play as the actual audience of the show inside the play. The same goes for Hanney’s political speech midway towards the play. Overall, the way the show was directed with the minimal prop usage and taking advantage of the theater design helped provide a very welcoming atmosphere for the audience, while the addition of slapstick comedy made the play entertaining and fast-paced.
As I mentioned earlier, one of the things I feared the most before going into the play was not being able to grasp the jokes the actors would play on stage. However, I found my time at the theater to be very enjoyable. The play didn’t have to rely on dirty humor or bad words to be funny, as it is sometimes the case with American humor. Everyone in the audience seemed to have a good time, mostly because they felt familiarized with the comedy style. In my opinion, the comedy appealed to anyone regardless of gender, age, or where they came from -as it was the case of me and my classmates.