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The 39 Steps by Queensland Theatre - Review

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by Geraldine Massey (subscribe)
I'm an experienced corporate communicator and editor with an eye for interesting events and an attachment to my trusty Oxford dictionary.
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The funniest play in Brisbane… or anywhere else
Feeling poorly? Is work a struggle? Got the too-much-Brisbane-rain-blues? Don't despair. Queensland Theatre has the cure for whatever ails you. You'll be so busy laughing and smiling after seeing their rambunctious romp, The 39 Steps, that you won't even remember what your problem was in the first place. The 39 Steps, based on the movie by Alfred Hitchcock, which in turn was based on the novel by John Buchan, is playing at QPAC's Cremorne Theatre until 28 March. Just be careful, though, it's highly infectious.

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Image supplied by Queensland Theatre

Part slapstick, part Monty Pythonesque silliness, part thriller, part romance, part farce, The 39 Steps defies pigeon-holing, except that it's a comedy; a glorious, witty, just plain hilarious comedy. From an original concept by Simon Corbel and Nobby Diamond, it's been garnering accolades and awards since it first appeared on the London stage in 2006. Queensland Theatre's version is Patrick Barlow's adaptation, and directed by Jon Halpin, who also directed the play's Australian debut for the State Theatre Company of South Australia.

The play is an affectionate send-up of the whole thriller noir archetype and all its tropes. The obligatory chase scene; the innocent man in the wrong place at the wrong time; the love interest who initially doesn't like the hero; the villain with an easily identifiable physical characteristic; and the dying man who lives just long enough to blurt out the essential information, are all on hysterical, and clever display here.

The 39 Steps cast is comprised of only four actors, and the team assembled by Halpin is first-rate Queensland home-grown talent. Hugh Parker, Bryan Probets, Leon Cain and Liz Buchanan between them boast an impressive list of acting credits and awards in theatre, television and film. While they may not be household names, you will recognise their faces. You'll be scratching around in your memory trying to figure out where you've seen them before. I'll help you with one: Leon Cain is the man in the Air Asia TV ad - the one who turns Guy Sebastian on and off.

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Cast in rehearsal. Image supplied by Queensland Theatre

Hugh Parker plays our hero, Richard Hannay, and Liz Buchanan plays the major female roles: the mysterious spy, Annabella Schmidt; the crofter's wife Margaret; and the love interest, Pamela. All the other roles (more than 100 of them) are brought to gleeful life by the quickfire comedic talents of Bryan Probets and Leon Cain. They all work their way entertainingly through a range of costumes, props and accents and their execution of some scenes' complicated choreography is flawless.

From the opening, where Hannay laments the boredom and triviality of 1935 London, through his on-the-run exploits to the more tender and serious moments, Parker is nuance-perfect as the square-jawed hero. It's not easy to be the straight man in the midst of all the comedic chaos, but Parker really pulls it off, along with some great comic moments of his own. His Jim Hacker-does-Winston Churchill speech at a political rally is a definite highlight of the play.

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Cast in rehearsal. Image supplied by Queensland Theatre.

Liz Buchanan is excellent in all three of her roles. Her Pamela is a feisty heroine, and Margaret is suitably vulnerable, but it is as the femme fatale spy that she appears to be having the most fun. And why not? Annabella is over-the-top fun with a delicious European accent ("I haff no country!").

But the highlight of The 39 Steps is undoubtedly the performances of the two clowns, Cain and Probet. Their versatility and comic timing is astonishing throughout the full two-hour running time. They breezily whip through characters by changing a hat here, a coat there, or a wig behind the scenes, with lightning speed and never once missing a beat. Villains, housemaids, hotel proprietors, police, salesmen, vaudeville performers; they're all grist for their manic mill. They make it look effortless, which it obviously is not. The chase scene on the train is a tour de force of timing and physical comedy, which drew sustained applause from the crowd.

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Cast in rehearsal. Image supplied by Queensland Theatre.

But there are other stars of this show, beside the wonderful cast.

The script is side-splittingly funny. Pure slapstick sits alongside witty one-liners, references to other Hitchcock movies, Morecombe and Wise-like exchanges and sensational bad guy and hero monologues.

The challenge to design sets for action that moves riotously between theatres, a moving train, a succession of houses, a town hall, and the Scottish moors must have been enormous. Set and costume designer, Ailsa Paterson, has inventively enabled the action by making the set representational. A revolving centrepiece comprising scaffolds, ladders, stacked crates, windows and doors, can suggest the various scenes with a few changes of props and lighting. The scaffolds and ladders make an imaginative Firth of Forth Bridge, and the crates feature heavily, as they're used by the cast to construct the train, a car, a hotel reception desk, a range of furniture including beds. Costumes are also simple, allowing the clowns to pull off their rapid changes of character.

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Cast in rehearsal. Image supplied by Queensland Theatre.

Sound (by composer/sound designer Stuart Day) and lighting (by lighting designer David Murray) also aid the character changes and are used exceptionally well throughout the play. The chase over the Scottish moors is mirthfully played out with shadow puppets on a painted drop cloth, with voice-overs that sound like something from a Movietone newsreel and dramatic sound and lighting effects. This scene is also accompanied by police with Scottish terrier police dogs and one of Hitchcock's trademark cameo appearances.

My one (very minor) criticism is about pace. The first half maintains a cracking tempo. At intermission, my husband said he hadn't taken the silly smile off his face for the last hour, and I knew exactly what he meant. The second half takes the foot off the pedal a bit for some of the more serious and romantic scenes, and a couple of comic scenes, though very amusing to begin with, go on just a little bit too long.

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Cast in rehearsal. Image supplied by Queensland Theatre.

The intimate Cremorne Theatre is the perfect venue for this merry mash-up. The opening night crowd clearly enjoyed the frolic, showing their appreciation with a constant stream of laughter and applause. Hats off - and back on again! - to director, Jon Halpin, Queensland Theatre, and the talented troupe who brought it all together with aplomb. I'm pretty sure that great prankster, Hitchcock himself, would approve.

Rating: It's a hoot! ★ ★ ★ ★ ★

Tickets are almost sold out. Check QPAC here for availability.

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*Geraldine Massey was invited as a guest
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Why? The funniest play in Brisbane or anywhere else, for that matter.
When: Until 28 March 2018.
Where: QPAC, South Brisbane
Cost: Varies. See QPAC site for details
Your Comment
Funny I don't remember 39 Steps being a comedy! Great review.
by May Cross (score: 3|2299) 107 days ago
How fascinating '39 Steps' is a favourite book and I don't recall any humour, so they have really taken artistic license ... sounds most interesting!
by Kate Blake (score: 3|1195) 108 days ago
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