Perhaps it’s something in the fall air. Of late, there has been a bumper crop of worthwhile theatre in Victoria. The latest is a rollicking revival of The 39 Steps, an Alfred Hitchcock parody now playing at the Roxy Theatre.
Patrick Barlow’s 2005 farce spoofs Hitchcock’s spy thriller The 39 Steps, released in 1935. Barlow’s romp follows the original with surprising closeness. Yet one needn’t watch the movie — or read the original novel by John Buchan — to fully enjoy Blue Bridge Repertory Theatre’s production, directed by Jacob Richmond with panache and attention to detail.
The film, starring pencil-mustached Robert Donat, features Richard Hannay, an average Joe with a BBC accent who becomes ensnared in a spy ring. He tries to save a counterespionage agent, but she’s stabbed to death in his flat. Hannay, falsely accused of her murder, goes on the lam, fleeing both policemen and crooks to thwart international bad guys.
The play’s conceit is that a bout of salmonella has sidelined most of the cast. A frantic call for actors in the audience produces volunteers. The cast of four struggles with dozens of roles. The result is a plate-spinning mish-mash, with performers desperately changing costumes and juggling makeshift props.
In part, Barlow’s script works because he strikes a judicious balance between slapstick and honouring the original flick.
For instance, Hitchcock’s movie has a scene in which Hannay’s love interest, Pamela, removes her wet stockings. The task is complicated by the fact that the pair is handcuffed together, which means Hannay’s hand rubs up and down Pamela’s leg in a risqué manner. In the play, the routine is exaggerated for laughs, but not in an over-the-top manner (no one’s bottom is groped), which makes it funnier.
A similar approach is used in the farce’s opening scene. A seductive spy (Amanda Lisman) collapses over the lap of a seated Hannay (Gabriel Macdonald) with a knife in her back. Barlow has Hannay extricate himself by executing a risible limbo move, which — while absurd — is entirely within the realm of possibility. Elsewhere, there’s a scene in which Mr. Memory (Rod Peter Jr.) correctly answers audience questions. In the parody, the vaudeville star is rewarded with sardines being popped into his mouth — a small detail that’s deft and hilarious.
One of the funniest scenes has two effeminate salesmen (Chris Mackie and Peter Jr.) on a train trading jokes, manipulating brassieres and exhibiting more than a passing interest in handsome Hannay.
This is a highly ambitious project. On a technical level, The 39 Steps demands much: a frantic cavalcade of cinematic light and sound cues, split-second costume changes, puppetry and tricky silhouette scenes. Everything was handled admirably at Wednesday’s preview performance.
Director Richmond, co-founder of the Atomic Vaudeville comedy troupe, has added plenty of his own comic touches. When Macdonald volunteers himself as an actor, he mentions he can sing Josh Groban songs. This manifests itself amusingly later on, when Hannay — speaking at a political meeting — incongruously breaks into Groban’s hit You Raise Me Up.
Later, Hannay and Pamela are kidnapped by hoods in Scotland. As they bump over the moors in a car, bagpipe versions of tunes by Smash Mouth and Journey play on the radio.
Hannay must exude a leading man’s strength and confidence, something Macdonald delivered in a solid performance. Lisman navigated various characters — Pamela, the sexy spy, a lonely Scottish housewife — very well, finding a different tone for each. Peter Jr., juggling multitudinous roles, was also strong, making all of his characters distinct while conveying a unique eccentricity throughout.
On this particular evening, the comic powerhouse was Mackie. The bearded actor attacked each part, ranging from milkman to female innkeeper, with gonzo energy and Monty Pythonesque chutzpah. One of his best turns was as a Scottish farmer who keeps yelling dementedly: “I’ll see to the coos!” (cows). All accents, honed by dialect coach Iris Macgregor Bannerman, are well done.
The 39 Steps continues at the Roxy Theatre to Nov. 3.