Toronto’s Soulpepper Theatre presents a comedic adaptation of Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps
If you’re a classic film buff, you may remember The 39 Steps, a 1935 Alfred Hitchcock thriller about a Canadian man in London who unwittingly becomes embroiled in an international espionage plot that has him fleeing from the law and from a mysterious cabal — the titular 39 Steps. In this stage version, adapted by Patrick Barlow in 2005, the spy caper is re-imagined as a stripped-down, madcap farce with four actors portraying the dozens of characters. It can make for a solidly entertaining night if you’re in the mood for it.
If you’re familiar with the Hitchcock movie the plot and most of the lines from the script remain intact (with a light sprinkling of new jokes and allusions to the titles of other Hitchcock films thrown in for good measure). The comedy relies on the over-the-top, goofy delivery of what would otherwise be straight lines and a whole lot of physical comedy to get laughs.
Kawa Ada anchors the cast as protagonist Richard Hannay. He brings his suave, debonaire A-game and is effortlessly charming in the role. While he has his funny moments he’s the (relative) straight man in the show and most of the comedic heavy lifting is done by the rest of the cast who all switch back and forth between multiple roles throughout the show.
Raquel Duffy takes on the gamut of female roles and deftly weaves from femme fatale to prudish prig. The two other cast members, Anand Rajaram and Andrew Shaver, are absolutely fearless. They really commit to the ridiculous accents and the physical pratfalls to create a staggering number of way over-the-top characters, and their performances are astounding. I couldn’t help but laugh when Shaver stumbled around the stage cross-eyed as a hick-ish crofter, or when Rajaram’s Mr. Jordan, the head conspirator, cartoonishly channels Hitler when enraged.
There’s a very British sensibility to the humour: it’s not as vulgar as American-style slapstick, there are no fart jokes and the raciness is kept to a minimum, but there is plenty of man-in-a-dress humour and a strong reliance on laughing at thick accents, the implications of which may not sit too well with some audience members.
How much you enjoy the show will depend on your mood and your appreciation for goofiness and physical humour. While I’m generally not a huge fan of slapstick and pratfalls I thought it was mildly amusing, and a did find a few moments uproariously funny.
I did think that the play felt a little too long and the schtick starts to wear thin by the end of the second half when the pacing tended to drag a bit as well. I wonder if it wouldn’t be tighter in a quicker paced, 100-minute intermissionless format.
The 39 Steps is a silly, frivolous, and entertaining show. The humour isn’t edgy or sophisticated, and not everyone will find it amusing, but if you’re in the mood to laugh at some silly antics and you’re looking for a fun summer show this might just do the trick.
- The 39 Steps is playing through August 27, 2016 at the Young Centre for the Arts, 50 Tank House Lane, in the Distillery Historic District, Toronto.
- Tickets $32 – $96 (plus service charge);
- Tickets are available in person at the venue box office, by phone at 416-866-8666 or online at soulpepper.ca.
Photo of Anand Rajaram, Raquel Duffy, Kawa Ada, and Andrew Shaver by Cylla von Tiedemann