Monday, July 21, 2014

Though I had screened Hitchcock's film The 39 Steps, I cannot say I knew entirely what to expect from the theatrical adaptation. I knew it would be a comedy, but beyond that I went into the Criterion with few expectations. I was, then, absolutely delighted when the magnificent performance Thursday unfolded before me. Whoever (presumably the writer, Maria Aitken) saw the original film and extrapolated from its melodramatic cadence and Hitchcock-style intrigue a tongue-in-cheek, self-aware on-stage spectacle clearly had an uncommon level of inspiration and insight. The brilliance of the play operated on multiple levels, not only in the quality of the acting and writing.
I am a great fan of breaking the fourth wall, as well as self-aware, meta-contextual irony. This play acts as a stupendous example of all these qualities. Instead of seeking to recapture Hitchcock's uniquely-filmic artistic form upon the stage, writer Patrick Barlow and director Maria Aitken's decision to drop the serious tone and perform this play as a comedy was a resounding success (in my humble opinion). Playing with the dramatic themes of crisis-born love and international intrigue that Hitchcock so loved albeit in a candid and jaunty manner was what made the play so singularly fun to watch.
For those even who did not chose to screen the original films (and perhaps, even, are not acquainted with Hitchcock's greater oeuvre), the play offered a taste of real ingenuity, wit, and hilarity. Throwing together a cast of four to play, many times at once, 10 or more characters was an impressive feat to be true! Impressive to me especially was Paul Critoph's (the larger, bald gentleman in the play [seen below]) ability to fluidly transition among a spectrum of accents from the British Isles. As a course chiefly concerned with British identity (in cinema or otherwise), this sort of exciting introduction to the diverse variety of folk native to this land was remarkably handy.

Another intrinsic merit to this performance was its use of off-the-wall props and unconventional effects that, while not literally believable, nonetheless comedically conveyed their desired notions. From podia-turned-car dashboard; to suitcases which tripled as train cars, train compartments, and literal suitcases; to windows and doors that moved around to suit the needs of the scene directly before the audience's eyes, the show was constantly rigging its props and features to the delight of those viewing. Accompanying any quirky use of props is the classic style of slapstick comedy. An exemplar of this near-universally humorous method of acting was Greg Haiste, "little-man" to the aforementioned larger Critoph, his unabated antics, outbursts, and physical explosiveness added incredible dimension to the landscape onstage. 
Not to discredit Ellie Beaven and Ben Righton – they played Pamela and Richard, respectively – who fell into their roles naturally and enthusiastically, never seeming over-dramatic (unless comedically relevant) or trying to steal the show. They poked fun at the seriousness and almost ridiculousness of Hitchcock's original characters, all the while never straying too far from their intended purposes. 

All-in-all, a delightful, invigorating show and introduction to London and its theatre (see the re not er). Hilarious and familiar to those who have seen The 39 Steps, and still a spectacle for those who have not. 

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