- Courtesy Of Andy Duback
- From left: Jack Herholdt, Charlotte Munson, Marc LeVasseur and Tyler Nye
In popular culture, plenty of stories hop art forms; for example, books are adapted into movies or plays or Hulu series. But The 39 Steps might just take the prize, if there were one, for Story With the Most Adaptations Into Something Else. Scottish writer John Buchan's original tale was serialized in a British magazine in 1915, then published as a book later that year. Preceding Ian Fleming's James Bond by decades, protagonist Richard Hannay was an early action hero who excelled at escaping sticky situations. The book was also one of the first "innocent man on the run" novels.
Buchan would write several more of those, and the plot device would become a staple of film — including Alfred Hitchcock's 1935 version of The 39 Steps, arguably the most famous adaptation. The film was remade three times, including as a BBC special. Buchan's tale was broadcast five times as a radio series and had more than one theatrical interpretation. In 2008, the story was adapted as interactive fiction (as The 21 Steps), and in 2013 it was made into a video game.
What's next, virtual reality? Perhaps. And that would be fun. Meantime, Patrick Barlow's 2005 stage adaptation, also fun, continues to make the rounds. A production at Saint Michael's Playhouse in Colchester runs through this Saturday, July 13.
Buchan's original Hannay was a pre-Great War action hero bent on stopping a political assassination and preventing Britain from losing military secrets to the enemy (Germany). Barlow's version retains part of that mission, adds a love interest or three, and turns characters into caricatures and the story into a madcap farce.
Did we mention action? It results primarily from just four actors playing more than 100 roles. That's a lot of fast costume — and accent — changes. Versatile props are required, such as a door on rollers that can be both entrance and exit, and shadow-puppet interludes convey what would be impossible for the humans onstage to enact.
From start to finish, this play keeps tongue firmly in cheek; Barlow's script elevates silliness and melodrama to a gold standard. An Englishman and comedic performer himself, the 72-year-old playwright surely grew up under the influence of Monty Python.
St. Mike's has long presented whodunits and romantic comedies as part of its summer season. The 39 Steps checks both of those boxes. Those four actors have plenty of room to own the stage, which they do. Director Catherine Doherty wrings every possible ounce of skilled hamminess from each of them.
The play opens on the rather vapid and self-consciously handsome Hannay (Marc LeVasseur) arriving in a lonely, sparsely furnished flat after a stint of doing who-knows-what in (then-called) Rhodesia. Before he can sink into colonialist reverie or adjust to a sedate life, a mysterious, dark-haired woman named Annabella Schmidt (Charlotte Munson) appears and pleads with him to hide her.
Speaking with an accent so thick it requires projectile spit, Annabella manages to convey that she is a spy on a mission: She needs to get a message to a professor in a nearly unpronounceable town in Scotland. She shares the ridiculously outsize map — large enough for the audience to read — with Hannay.
Somehow, though Annabella is supposedly safe in Hannay's bedroom, she ends up murdered. But not before she conveys the urgency of her undertaking to him in an over-the-top-dramatic dying scene. This is one of a number of lapses in logic, but never mind. The plot speeds forward apace, with enough preposterous detours to make audiences intermittently forget that war is a-brewin' and stakes are high.
In some respects, the actor who plays Hannay in this show has the easiest job: Aside from a couple of costume disguises, he is one character throughout. LeVasseur strikes a balance of arrogance and patriotic zeal, managing to project romantic longing despite the campiness. He also sports a splendid pencil mustache.
After her turn as agent Annabella, Munson has a couple of other femmes to embody — each of which are, of course, attractive to our distractible hero. An unabashed physical comedian, Munson thoroughly embraces looking and sounding absurd, making her perfectly cast.
It falls to Tyler Nye and Jack Herholdt — called Clown 1 and Clown 2 in the program — to perform all the other roles. Like, dozens of them, from enemy spies to podunk police to Scottish innkeepers with impenetrable accents (an inexhaustible source of humor) to showmen in a gimmicky memory act at the London Palladium. Herholdt has an uncanny gift for manic physical and facial expressions. But both men throw themselves so consummately into these rapid-fire roles that one wonders whether they can remember their real identities at the end of the night.
Given Barlow's emphasis on an almost frantic pace, this production has a few inexplicably slow moments, particularly at the start. While these junctures give the audience's smile muscles a break, the rhythm feels off. It's as if The 39 Steps induces a need for speed throughout the house, and hitting the brakes is simply insupportable.
But even the lapses are short-lived; soon enough, the race to save the day is on again.
This show's technical crew pulled out the stops, too. The play doesn't call for a set, opting instead for frequently moving furniture and other props, but scenic designer Gianni Downs deserves credit for the white and gold frame around the sides and top of the stage, suggesting a faux theater within the theater. The audience chortled appreciatively when a smaller proscenium dropped down at the back of the stage for the Palladium shows — a meta theater within a theater.
Terry Lawrence is responsible for all those funny props, and lighting designer Anthony Pellecchia provides suitably cinematic, shadowy drama. Caisa Sanburg's sound design propels the imagination toward what cannot be shown. KJ Gilmer's costumes range from pre-World War I vintage — right down to the fedoras and nylon stockings — to uproarious plaid ensembles for those innkeepers.
And just what the heck are the 39 steps? Reviewer rules forbid revealing that detail. But there's one way — actually, many ways — to find out.