Theater Review: A Madcap “39 Steps”

Patrick Barlow’s script and Chuck Morey’s direction of the Peterborough Players production turn “The 39 Steps” into a madcap, Marx-Brothers-style of zaniness barreling along at farce-speed until the very last moments.

The 39 Steps. Adapted by Patrick Barlow from the book by John Buchan from the movie of Alfred Hitchcock. Directed by Chuck Morey. Presented by the Peterborough Players, Peterborough, New Hampshire, through July 29.

By Jim Kates.

A scene from the Peterborough Players production of THE 39 STEPS. Photo: Deb Porter-Hayes

Early on in Patrick Barlow’s stage adaptation of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1935 movie appropriation of John Buchan’s thriller novella The Thirty-Nine Steps, Bridget Beirne in the character of Annabella Schmidt says of the sinister villain, “He can look like a hundred people.” Well, that’s just what three of the four members of the cast do, and there ain’t nothing sinister in it. Also, in an odd way, it’s one of the aspects in which the new play is absolutely faithful to the old fiction, in spite of all the differences.

John Buchan’s 1915 adventure story is mostly about one man, the hero Richard Hannay, taking on many different false faces, looking like a hundred people. On the run from a murder charge, he assumes one disguise after another until finally he can safely resume his own identity, clear his name, and foil the foreign agents for the moment. Hitchcock, in 1935, picked up certain elements— Hannay’s initial boredom, the innocent man on the run, the Scottish landscape—left most others out, and added his own kinds of comedy, romance, and suspense. The chief element of uncertainty, the role of Mr. Memory, derives from two irrelevant sentences in the original story: “About six o’clock I went home, dressed, dined at the Café Royal, and turned into a music-hall. It was a silly show, all capering women and monkey-faced men, and I did not stay long.”

This is a long way to get to the point where Barlow’s theater piece plays almost as fast and loose with the movie as Hitchcock did with the novella, and each one of the three bounces off the others to grand effect. Barlow’s script works even if you don’t know the movie, but it has an operatic sense of reference that makes it all the more delightful if you do. Not having the luxury of a movie’s space for landscape and a movie’s pacing for suspense (both of these Hitchcock signatures), Barlow goes straight for the comedy. Barlow’s script and Chuck Morey’s direction of the Peterborough Players production turn The 39 Steps into a madcap, Marx-Brothers-style of zaniness barreling along at farce speed until the very last moments.

Ian Peakes as Richard Hannay gets as close as the production comes to a still point in this kaleidoscopic world. One actor, one character—how simple it all sounds, and how rock-steady it makes him appear through the course of two acts. In Buchan’s story, Hannay remembers “an old scout in Rhodesia . . . once telling me that the secret of playing a part was to think yourself into it. You could never keep it up, he said, unless you could manage to convince yourself that you were it.” Within his role, he convincingly demonstrates this advice with an impassioned speech from a political platform at one climax of the play.

If this is the secret of Peakes’s success in the production, one wonders how much fast thinking his three colleagues have to be doing. Annabella Schmidt makes a bombshell secret agent, and she’s soon dispatched with a knife in her back (cue Psycho music). Margaret (Bridget Beirne) is a repressed, Scottish housewife, and she gets left behind. Pamela (Bridget Beirne) is a feisty, young Englishwoman on the loose (the stage show does not explain how or why), and she’s got the staying power. That’s a deal of serial thinking, and Beirne changes character as easily as she switches wigs.

A scene from the Peterborough Players production of THE 39 STEPS. Photo: Deb Porter-Hayes

But her transformations pale next to the instantaneous and absolute mob that populates the stage in the two persons of Tom Frey and Kraig Swartz, listed in the playbill as “clowns.” Each one alone has enough clown power for a whole circus. Together, their very process of never-ending quick-change threatens to upstage the characters they take on—with Swartz beginning and ending as Mr. Memory himself, and Frey only in his personality of the arch-villain displaying none of the other 99 people we were threatened with at the beginning, so that he remains here, as in every other of his more flickering characters, instantly recognizable.

Even Charles Morgan’s clever set participates in the now-you-see-me-now-you-don’t-now-you-see-me-again festivities. The only thing that slows The 39 Steps is a little predictable bawdy body work. That’s not much slowing.

By the end, Hannay has been jolted out of his boredom, he and Pamela have found their match, England is safe once again, and the audience has had an impeccably good time.

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