The chase is on in Hitchcock’s manic ‘The 39 Steps’
STONEHAM – You don’t always need a huge set, a multitude of props, and dazzling special effects to create theatrical magic.
The Greater Boston Stage Company is welcoming back live audiences to the Stoneham Theatre with the “The 39 Steps,” a thriller awash in murder, intrigue and a seemingly endless cast of characters.
“The 39 Steps” is a play that is not easily pinned down. It is Alfred Hitchcock meets cheeky British humor meets film noir. Perhaps, when the Scottish burrs are mangled, throw in a little Monty Python.
Putting it all into a theatrical mixing bowl, playwright Patrick Barlow has fashioned a comedy thriller with some creative low-tech staging that’s a large part of its charm.
Barlow adapted the original concept and production of a four-actor version of the story by Simon Corble and Nobby Dimon, which in turn was based on the 1935 Alfred Hitchcock film, which in turn was inspired by John Buchan’s 1915 novel.. In his skillful adaptation of the various works that contribute to his piece, Barlow succeeds poking fun at several genres while paying homage to them at the same time.
It is London, April 1935, and 37-year-old Richard Hannay (Paul Melendy), dry as dust, is a bit bored in his dull little flat. He decides to take in a West End show when a beautiful woman named Annabella Schmidt (Grace Experience) plops down beside him and fires off a pistol. She implores him to allow her to take refuge in his flat.
That sets off a chain of events that ends up with Annabella murdered in his apartment, and Richard becomes the target of a nationwide manhunt and a ring of spies, both of whom pursue Hannay across the United Kingdom.
Melendy was actually in a 2019 production of “The 39 Steps” at Gloucester Stage Company, in which he artfully played one of the clowns. The clowns in this production – Russell Garrett and K.P. Powell — portray heroes, villains, men, women, and children, about 100 characters in all.
They often change characters in the blink of an eye or play multiple characters at once, simply changing hats and voices.
There are many moments of pure comic gold, including Melendy’s listening to a radio broadcast of Richard Hannay’s description, purposefully arching his own eyebrows as the announcer describes his “pronounced eyebrows.”
Experience is asked to play three very different women – including Schmidt — who become involved with Hannay as he chases a spy ring that threatens to deliver vital defense secret as to the Germans.
Garrett is given the task of inhabiting a dizzying array of improbable characters, and a range of Scottish burrs, including Mrs. McGarrigle, the co-proprietor of a Scottish inn who has seen better days, along with her inn. Then there’s “Mr. Memory,” the ill-fated music hall performer who holds the key to the spy ring.
Powell, making his GBSC debut, is right there with his talented castmates. And one of the hats he wears is stand-up comedian, ideal preparation for this show.
The chase includes a stop in an almost unpronounceable Scottish village and a madcap journey across Scotland and back to London, not to mention a hair-raising encounter with a mysterious, villainous professor. Can Hannay stay free long enough to unravel the mystery of “The 39 Steps?”
A big part of the fun is the low-tech stage magic. So we have Hannay pursued by a “plane” helmed by Garrett and Powell much like Cary Grant was in Hitchcock’s “North by Northwest,” one of many Hitchcock movies that are alluded to during the production. And a very famous musical theme will repeat itself over and over.
It wouldn’t be an Ilyse Robbins-directed production without some comic choreography worked into the show, providing some hilarious moments. And Robbins’ solid direction and seasoned cast keeps the rocket-paced production from running off the rails.
The stage management by Shauwna Grillo, sound direction by Andrew Duncan Will, lighting by Daisy Long, and the costumes by Rachel Padula-Shufelt are all vital to the success of the piece and contribute to its high camp vibe, especially when they combine to portray, say, a death-defying escape from a moving train.
“The 39 Steps” is 90 minutes of great fun, artfully executed by a superb cast and director. It is a great way to return to live theater.
The Greater Boston Stage Company production of “The 39 Steps.” Written by Patrick Barlow, based on the novel by John Buchan and the movie by Alfred Hitchcock. Directed by Ilyse Robbins. At the Greater Boston Stage Company, 395 Mins St., Stoneham. For ticket information, go to greaterbostonstage.org.