Email
Password
Remember meForgot password?
    Log in with Twitter

article imageReview: Clowns are the stars of campy, frenetic ‘39 Steps’ in Toronto Special

By Jeff Cottrill     Aug 5, 2016 in Entertainment
Toronto - Ravi Jain may be one of Toronto’s hottest theatre directors, but he hasn’t forgotten his clowning roots. That’s clear from “The 39 Steps”, in which he turns the classic Alfred Hitchcock film into a crazily entertaining screwball free-for-all.
The 1935 movie (very loosely based on a John Buchan novel) is already as much a comedy as a thriller — sort of an early British version of North by Northwest, sending Robert Donat on a cross-country run from both police and spies — but Patrick Barlow’s 2005 stage adaptation raises the comedy factor, with its meta-theatrical gimmick of four actors playing more than a hundred and fifty characters. In this Soulpepper production, which opened Wednesday, Jain dispenses with any pretense of suspense or seriousness and just lets the clowns loose. The result is total comedic anarchy, mostly in a good way.
Kawa Ada, who recently starred in Jain’s acclaimed re-imagining of Salt-Water Moon, exudes dapper charm and old-school sophistication as he takes over the Donat role of Richard Hannay. A Canadian with a suspicious British accent, Hannay finds himself in a pickle when a German spy, Annabella Schmidt (Raquel Duffy), is murdered in his London flat. Pursued by police who think he killed her and foreign agents who think he knows too much, Hannay flees to the Scottish Highlands to find Annabella’s contact, stop important information (i.e., the MacGuffin) from leaving the country and learn whatever the enigmatic 39 Steps are. Along the way, he gets entangled with the standard Hitchcock blonde, Pamela (Duffy again), who mistrusts him, but ends up literally handcuffed into helping him clear his name.
It’s faithful to Hitchcock’s plot, but unlike in the movie, plot here plays second banana to nonstop madcap comedy. The very talented Anand Rajaram and Andrew Shaver jump tirelessly between dozens of offbeat characters, heightened to the max, including Bobbies, agents, vaudeville performers, demented hicks, senile politicians and more, spouting outrageous Scottish and cockney and German accents with abandon. Sometimes you’re laughing at the constant slapstick silliness, and sometimes you’re just amazed at how Rajaram and Shaver make their transitions between characters and costumes so fluidly, with a bottomless supply of energy.
Jain’s production reminds me of an anecdote I once heard about Robert Clampett, who directed some of the more far-out and surreal Looney Tunes shorts like Porky in Wackyland and The Big Snooze: supposedly, Clampett held brainstorming sessions with his writers in which they were permitted to throw any ideas for gags that came into their heads on the table, but nobody was allowed to say “No,” no matter how bizarre or ridiculous an idea was. The 39 Steps seems to be a product of a similar process – it’s as if Jain gave his actors free reign to improvise everything they could think of in rehearsals and then kept all of it in, hoping most of it would stick.
And despite some repetition and a few set pieces that go on too long, a lot of it does work. Among the funniest bits are the ones that call attention to the play’s own theatrical artificiality. Each time Hannay looks out his window to see the two heavies spying on Annabella from the street, Rajaram and Shaver run onstage with a lamppost and take their positions; the payoff comes when they arrive a bit late. When police arrive at a country cottage where Hannay is hiding, they chase him out a window (the “Rear Window”, of course), and hilarity ensues as he and the coppers climb awkwardly through a small stage window frame that’s not attached to anything.
Audiences at the previews seemed to find the show amusing as well, according to the Internet: @rubyelite Tweeted, “Brilliant. I was not prepared for such a comedic evening. Stellar cast,” on July 27, while @augustobitter said, “Go catch #The39Steps @Soulpepper, opening next week, if you want to pee your pants laughing and use your imagination a little or a lot!” on the 25th.
Although Rajaram and Shaver tend to dominate the show, Ada is a great choice for Hannay; he often plays straight man to the clowns, but his facial reactions and occasional slapstick scrapes earn laughs too. Duffy is wildly over the top as a strangely aggressive Annabella, spinning and thrusting all over the room like a deranged Marlene Dietrich with boundary issues. She fares better as the prissy Pamela and as the crofter’s wife that Hannay meets on the run, although the latter is a lot less meek than Peggy Ashcroft’s original – with a knack for snapping chickens’ necks and killing live herring.
Credit is due to the technical side of the show as well, particularly André du Toit’s lighting and Ken MacKenzie’s rapidly changing set. One wonderful (and funny) effect shows a shadow of moving miniature dancers on the back wall, representing a party going on in another room; it flicks right off every time Ada closes a stage door. The police chase across the Scottish moors is shown on a translucent screen with silhouettes of toy people and helicopters running around the hills (one of which is shaped like the familiar Hitchcock profile logo.)
Would Hitchcock himself have enjoyed this show? Perhaps, although its sensibility is much closer to Monty Python or The Muppet Show than to the Master’s typical mix of gripping suspense and macabre humour. The West End production, which I saw in 2007, was funny, but nowhere near as nutty and fast-paced as Jain’s version is. But that’s perfectly fine. Everybody needs a dose of the silly now and then.
The 39 Steps runs at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts until August 27.
More about Theatre, Toronto, Alfred Hitchcock, the 39 steps, soulpepper
More news from
Entertainment Video
Latest News
Top News