Curtis High School, Grade 12
"Quick, you must escape through the window! No, not that one --the rear window!"
The puns fly and familiar Hitchcockian references abound in the new Patrick Barlow adaptation of The 39 Steps. Originally a novel by John Buchan, the spy thriller featuring protagonist Richard Hannay has been made into no less than three movie versions over the years, the most famous of which is the 1935 version directed by the Master of Suspense himself, Alfred Hitchcock.
The plot, and even much of the dialogue of this new adaptation, remain remarkably close to those of the original Hitchcock film. But what this production attempts to do is transform the thriller into a British-style comedy. An atmosphere of suspense is replaced with an atmosphere of mock-suspense and slapstick. There is an iconic scene in which Hannay is found handcuffed to a beautiful blonde as she removes her wet pair of stockings. Originally a dramatic, suspenseful scene full of sexual tension, it is transformed into one of hilarity. Hannay politely tries to avert his eyes as his handcuffed hand helplessly flops up and down his accomplice's leg.
Charles Edwards plays the handsome Hannay, on the run from a pair of deadly spies; he's unwittingly thrown into an international conspiracy, where his only hope of survival is to prove his own innocence. Jennifer Ferrin plays the three main women who cross paths with Hannay. Every other role in the show is played by Cliff Saunders and Arnie Burton. These two cover dozens of characters through the course of the two-hour show, including Mr. Memory, an emcee, a maid, a milkman, police officers, spies, a train conductor, underwear salesmen, a professor and his wife, an innkeeper and his wife-just to name a few. In one particularly memorable scene, the two actors demonstrate the full extent of their talent, actually playing four to five characters simultaneously interacting with each other. Their charismatic, rapid transitions between clearly defined zany characters are a joy to watch.
Overall, the production works, although some scenes certainly work better than others. As I mentioned, the script is riddled with references to popular Hitchcock films; indeed, allusions to The Man Who Knew Too Much, Vertigo and Psycho get some of the biggest laughs. There is even an affectionate political jab at the Democratic presidential candidates, which must have been added after previews had already started.
The production goes for a particular form of comedy and does it well, though it's certainly not everyone's cup of tea. For audiences who like British comedy, The 39 Steps is certainly worth a go.
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