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  • Writer's pictureBen Kemper

The 39 Steps

Or: The Man Who Knew Too Much

If I wanted to be cruel and lead you astray I could tell you that the 39 Steps is falling to pieces: that it is sloppy in its delivery, chaotic in its construction, and in all around pandemonium. But I wish to be truthful so I shall say instead that the 39 Steps is bursting out of its seams, moving along too fast for the set to catch up with it, amping the stakes up to 140%, and ever climbing towards new heights of hilarity. So what if hands sprout from the wall, or lines collide into each other, or mustaches come unglued? The company will soldier on, always in good spirits and at the top of their game, catching each potential disaster and fashioning a new gag from it.

This theatrical macgyvering can be attributed to a quick cast but also to the highly self-referential script of Patrick Barlow. Based on the novel by John Buchan but in fact a pastiche of all things Hitchcock, the 39 steps follows Richard Hannay (Aubrey Mcgrath) one time adventurer and now lonesome bachelor, kicking around london with no purpose in life. After meeting a beautiful and mysterious woman at the theatre (Gaby Febland) Hannay is plunged into a world of intrigue and a race against time: trying to stop an evil foreign agent from compromising Britain’s safety, fleeing across the wilds of Scotland with a beautiful and baffled woman (Febland again), and having all sorts of encounters with a number of peculiar characters (Juanita Andersen and Matt Dial).

The production is quite elaborate, though fraught with peril, and they have hit upon the most creative use of the turntable I have ever seen, augmented by chairs, trunks and a removable curtain. The best bits of staging are always carried off by the cast themselves, whether it be a sudden lamppost, a rapidly constructed car or an onslaught of murderous Mimes.

McGrath ably grasps the roll of deadpan hero, forever raising an eye and ho-humming when faced with pistols, long drops and gorgeous dolls. Though his lines sometimes dissipate before reaching our ears and his mustache and combover create a rather...unfortunate resemblance, his understatedness is absolutely winning and I will cherish the memory of him wriggling out from under a rigor mortisized corpse for a long time. Febland is equally a delight, squirreling about the stage, and adding a touch of humor to even the most dire of situations. No matter if her German accent sounds Southern or her Scottish accent sounds Russian, she rides her roll regally no matter who she is. Andersen is brim full of energy and all sorts of humorous tricks. Many of her rolls reminds this reviewer of a sea lion, boisterous and ungainly until in the water of a situation, where they swim like a dream. Dial in his turn watches over a menagerie of expressions. It takes him awhile to wrangle them all and get up to speed but once there he explodes with energy and intention, both benevolent and malevolent.

The show was a madcap, running from one scripted twist to unscripted glitch, but always finding time for both flashes of theatrical genius and moments of true sweetness, and heroism. A bundle of laughs bound about with the cords of that a good thriller always plucks: our suckertude for a romance, our sweet tooth for intrigue and our steadfast belief that in spite of all the evidence, everything will be alright.

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