Centaur Theatre to stage comedic spoof of ‘The 39 Steps’
Centaur Theatre – Alfred Hitchcock was directing films in his native England for 10 years when his film adaptation of John Buchan’s spy novel “The 39 Steps” was released in 1935. Starring Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll, the film centred around Richard Hannay, a Canadian of English background, who gets unexpectedly involved in a chase from London to Scotland because he is mistakenly implicated in the murder of a female spy, and has to find out what a spy organization called the 39 Steps is all about before their plot is carried out that could seriously affect the security of Great Britain.
The film version of “The 39 Steps” was a hit in England, and cemented Hitchcock’s reputation as “The Master of Suspense”, which he carried over to even further fame when he moved to the U.S. in 1940. In a career that spanned 50 years, Alfred Hitchcock’s films like “Rear Window”, “Strangers on A Train”, “Vertigo”, “North By Northwest” and of course, “Psycho”, always played upon the theme of how ordinary people get mixed up in extraordinary situations that were not of their doing (with an intense mistrust of police officers and other authority figures thrown into the mix). Although it has been attempted on several occasions, trying to do a remake or a remount of an Alfred Hitchcock production was almost like tampering with perfection.
For its second production of the 2017-2018 season, the Centaur Theatre decided to stage the comedic spoof of “The 39 Steps” that played to great acclaim in the West End of London and on Broadway. Worried that the Centaur couldn’t tamper with such a classic of intrigue, cloak-and-dagger and pure suspense, they succeeded with “The 39 Steps” because they managed to give the audience a classic Hitchcock work, but with a Monty Python twist to it, yet they kept the original spirit of the 1935 film.
In fact, the suspense and intrigue is taken up a few notches that result in quite a whirling dervish of a production. Instead of the deliberate, methodical way that Hitchcock managed to unfold the plot that he was always associated with to its satisfying conclusion (plot twists and “macguffin” red herrings notwithstanding), the Centaur’s production is more fast-paced and exaggerated in tone that almost borders as a slapstick comedy.
Andrew Shaver anchors this production as Richard Hannay, to its English toff perfection, and remains so unruffled as he tries to win this race against time to discover the 39 Steps’ diabolical scheme. But what makes this production really work so well is the supporting cast of Lucinda Davis, Trent Pardy and Amelia Sargisson, who have the unenviable job of performing the multiple supporting roles, which they succeed with a great deal of discipline and comic effect (in fact, the railroad station sequence, in which Davis and Pardy switch roles every few seconds between chatty lingerie salesman, a police constable, a newsboy, and a railroad porter by simply switching hats is a great piece of breathless physical comedy). And for all those Hitchcock aficionados, this production does pay a fitting tribute with some “veiled” references to his classic films, like “Rear Window” and “North By Northwest” (and Hitch himself does his customary cameo appearance).
“The 39 Steps” is fast, furious and highly entertaining. If you want to discover what could have happened if Hitchcock took one of his suspense masterpieces and turned into a Marx Brothers-type of broad comedy, this production would certainly have been the end result. And knowing Hitchcock’s tendency to sometimes display his bizarre sense of humour, he would have certainly approved. It’s playing at the Centaur until December 10.