Englishman Richard Hannay thinks he has stumbled upon a ring of Nazi spies who are trying to steal some vital state secret from the sceptered isle. But that’s only half of Hannay’s problem; the other half is that he’s on the lam because the police suspect him of murder.
The story is ripe for theatrical treatment. The clever and convincing use of props and pantomime evoke a variety of locations and situations. A chase scene takes place on a moving train; a single door becomes a tour through a Scottish manse; the wind wreaks havoc on the moor; a ladder becomes a biplane. Sight and audio gags abound.
Directed with a sure hand by James Ong, the production moves along at a high energy level and is well-acted.
As Hannay, Timothy Stewart is as good as he’s ever been. Gwendolyn Evans is fine as Annabella, who has some connection to the spies; as Pamela, a posh Englishwoman who finds herself handcuffed to Hannay; and as Margaret, a Glaswegian, who is now a farmer’s wife.
Joshua McGowen and Jared Blount are outstanding as characters called Clowns #1 and #2, playing various roles, both male and female, with aplomb. The two look so much alike, sometimes it’s hard to tell which one is which. And kudos to soundboard operator James Riley, who is tight on the sound cues.
So one must ask: Why is The 39 Steps so mind-numbingly dull? You begin with the source material. Buchan’s book is about as nonsensical a novel as any you will ever read. It’s not a story with characters one cares about or who hold one’s attention.
All the stage business provides the actors with opportunities to do amusing things the audience can appreciate or even admire, but not as part of a compelling story. Hitchcock aficionados might like to keep count of the several visual and musical references to his other films, but other than that, the play doesn’t offer much of interest.
Hitchcock extracted a fairly comprehensible story line from the novel, but his film is appreciated more for its characterizations than its substance. The scene where Hannay stumbles into a political rally, where he’s — surprisingly to him — the featured speaker, all while running from the police, is re-enacted here to fine effect.
But the scene benefits mainly from McGowen’s and Blount’s performances as a couple of codgers who chair the meeting, although Stewart does an admirable job as a speaker who has no idea why he’s speaking or what he’s supposed to be talking about.
It’s all mighty thin soup, however, for a whole play.