Arizona Theatre Company
Burlesque of Hitchcock’s '39 Steps' is campy fun
A sly recreation of film using only four actors
Alfred Hitchcock’s 1935 film, “The 39 Steps,” is classic Hitchcock, but far from a masterpiece. There are early stylistic elements: the hunted innocent, a MacGuffin, even the signature cameo by the director. But the lack of cinematic conventions and production values —especially evident in a British production compared to Hollywood’s standards — give the film an near-folksy sheen.
The Arizona Theatre Company’s “Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps” is a sly recreation that hews mostly note-for-note to the film’s detail-laden narrative, with the self-imposed restriction of using only four stage actors.
This “39 Steps” is a mash-up homage first to Hitchcock, but also to familiar British comedic stalwarts such as Laurel and Hardy, Monty Python, and even the Austin Powers movies.
The original movie’s convoluted plot makes it rich for parody: A man accidentally gets involved with a group of foreign spies and tries to thwart them. Although ostensibly a spy thriller with nationalistic overtones, it evolves into a screwball comedy with blatant erotic undertones, while taking some subtle swipes at society.
The film literally opens theatrically in an old-style music hall. Richard Hannay, a Canadian visiting London, is at the show that includes a novelty act, “Mr. Memory.” Mr. Memory is a savant whose vast memorization of trivia at the proud rate of “50 new facts a day” allows him to take random questions from the audience for their entertainment. A fight breaks out, followed by a gunshot and pandemonium. As the crowd runs for the exits, a woman attaches herself to Hannay and brazenly asks to go home with him.
In his apartment, she reveals that she is Annabella Schmidt, a spy. She said she fired the shot to escape two pursuers who have followed them and are standing outside under a streetlamp. She explains that spies have stolen secrets vital to England’s air defense and the key to thwarting them is a professor in Scotland and also to beware of the ringleader, a man missing his pinkie finger.
Hannay obligingly offers her shelter for the night with an undercurrent of lusty intent, only to have her stabbed to death in his apartment and the two men still waiting outside. (Don’t get too CSI here – willing suspension of disbelief will be required throughout). Hannay escapes by changing clothes with a milkman (fresh dairy products were delivered directly to homes in the days before supermarkets) and takes a train to Scotland.
On the train, Hannay verges on exposure, since the crime is all over the newspapers (people used to get information about current events in large, widely distributed printed paper products). As police search the train, he dashes into a compartment occupied by a woman named Pamela and tries to pretend they are lovers. She immediately gives him up, forcing him to escape out of the moving train on the Firth of Forth Bridge, a recognizable architectural achievement of that era near Edinburgh.
Hannay makes his way to a crusty old farmer’s house, who harbors a young wife missing the excitement of city life. There’s some saucy conversation in the kitchen before the police inevitably show up and Hannay escapes out a window. Pursuit across the moors ensues.
That’s just the first half of the movie. The film is available online for free. There’s a full description at Wikipedia and even an education packet courtesy of the original Tony-winning New York stage production.
Let’s just say that from here we have more adventure around the chance return of Pamela from the train who ends up handcuffed to Hannay. They learn trust by climbing over/under fences together and taking off her wet stockings, until she is finally convinced of his innocence. Along the way there are more betrayals, escapes, pandemonium, gunfire, and a flock of sheep, before it all ends happily (ironically back in a dance hall).
The show was adapted by Scottish playwright and actor Patrick Barlow in 2007, and credits both the film and that medium’s source: a novel by John Buchan. Barlow lifts entire sections of the original film dialogue to great effect with the show’s skewed deliveries. Nearly incomprehensible Gaelic and German accents, as well as overacting, are in plentiful supply, again to great effect. Additional references are made via an astute shadow puppet segment. The breaking of the fourth wall becomes an on-going joke, as does the multiple costume/character changes, often onstage, required when four actors seek to portray 150 of the film’s characters.
This touring company directed by Joel Sass stars Robert O. Berdahl as Hannay, Sarah Agnew as most (but not all) of the female roles, with Jim Lichtscheidl and Luverne Seifert covering dozens of bit parts. Although the overall ensemble had cohesion, the Lichtscheidl and Seifert duo soared with the physical rhythms of a circus act. In fact, their roles here are designated simply as “Clown.”
Hitchcock himself liked “The 39 Steps” enough to remake it into “North By Northwest” later in his career when his skills and funding were more robust. This send-up in a highly theatrical manner of long-gone conventions and tastes is all the more effective through its cheeky respect for its subject matter. It helps to be familiar with the movie, but it’s not essential. This was evidenced by many attendees who admitted they didn’t know the film, but had a great time and gave the opening-night performance a well-earned standing ovation.