What: The 39 Steps
Where: Langham Court Theatre
When: To March 23
Rating: Five stars (out of five)
Hats off to Nick Sepi and Toshik Bukowiecki.
The actors cleverly play what seems like 100 mini-roles in The 39 Steps, Patrick Barlow’s hilarious stage spoof of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1935 flick. The army of characters includes travelling underwear salesmen, policemen, train conductors, agents, vaudeville performers and Scottish hotel keepers.
It’s said that, in total, the four-member cast (including the equally strong Alan Penty and Karen Brelsford) touch on 150 roles in The 39 Steps. This, of course, gives the romp a keep-those-plates-spinning quality that makes the show so giddily entertaining.
Most of us are familiar with Hitchcock’s 1935 film classic, The 39 Steps, based on John Buchan’s novel.
Playwright Barlow is surprisingly true to the movie’s storyline. A pencil-moustachioed bachelor (Penty), meets an exotic spy who is then assassinated in his flat. Falsely accused of her murder, he goes on the lam, trying to figure out a diabolical plot against Britain and clear his name.
Along the way he meets up with girl-next-door Pamela (Brelsford), who, unwillingly at first, aids him in his quest.
A bit like the Victoria Theatre Guild’s production of The Drowsy Chaperone last season, The 39 Steps demands a technical tour de force.
At curtain call, 10 backstage workers — folk who helped with a never-ending stream of costume changes and prop work — took a bow.
In some scenes, a single performer plays two people having back-and-forth exchanges. This requires the actor nip off stage, do a split-second costume change, nip back on stage and so on. Such wizardry is a challenge — and this crew pulls it off.
The production boasts a revolving stage, which helps get stage pieces on and off quickly. It also adds to the fun, such as when characters are chased around the Scottish moors, for instance.
Tackling myriad characters requires a grab-bag of accents, including horrendously bad Scottish brogues.
Thanks in good part to the skilled direction of Keith Digby and Cynthia Pronick — who oversee the fast-paced hijinks with admirable clarity — each character is detailed and well-defined.
Sepi, whose limping Scots hotelier is especially amusing, brings a welcome whimsicality to his roles which, on Thursday night, made for a superior performance. Bukowiecki, a veteran performer, is also strong, bringing humour and distinctness to his assortment of characters.
There are no weak links. Penty is cannily cast as the toupeed hero, managing to play it for laughs while retaining the illusion of the dashing 1930s leading man. It’s a very skilled turn.
Talented Brelsford shines as Pamela, the put-upon love interest. Like Penty, she is clever at ensuring her character isn’t too broad, which might glean cheap laughs at the expense of the show’s overall integrity.
A welcome addition are well-chosen video clips that serve to establish locales and give The 39 Steps an added cinematic zip. The play makes tongue-in-cheek reference to a handful of Hitchcock classics, including Psycho, Rear Window and North by Northwest.
This is the sort of show that re-establishes one’s faith (if it needed to be re-established at all) in community theatre.
The standard is awfully high. And the pride and joy taken in the work shows on stage. If you haven’t gotten your ticket yet, act now — they will go fast.
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