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Review: Arts Theatre's The 39 Steps

Photos: On the train with Damien Campagnolo. Jonathon Devitt, Dom Tennison and Tamara McLaughlin and the suave Mr Hannay.

The 39 Steps

Inspired by John Buchan and Alfred Hitchcock

Adapted by Patrick Barlow

From an original concept by Simon Corble and Nobby Dimon

Directed by Greg Scurr

Brisbane Arts Theatre

Petrie terrace


It was only last October when I saw the professional version of this play and then I laughed so much I said I might have to see it again to fully appreciate its hilarious absurdities.

So I went along to the Arts Theatre version wondering how the show would stack up so close to the other. But it is a very funny script and the cast milked the show of its laughs of every kind, subtle gags, old groaners, slapstick and sophisticated physical comedy manoeuvres

Part of the fun of the original was that all the 70-odd characters were played by four actors. The Arts Theatre added three more to spread the load, but to be honest I didn’t really notice because the characters, some very silly others even sillier, were all well played

Jonathon Devitt was a terrific Hannay. He was tall, rangy and I loved the little curl over his eyebrow. It was a very 1930s look. His costume too was right in period. He was a delightfully simple hero, a man thrown in at the deep end who somehow managed to stay afloat.

The use of simple props and some imagination (who could forget the escapes through windows) worked wonders on the many, many scene changes; I particularly enjoyed the strangely realistic train ride and the escape by hanging onto the carriage exterior.

This was a combination of great work from, Devitt, Damien Campagnolo, who also brought the house down as the weirdly bearded Scotsman Mr McGarrigle, Dom Tennison, again a man of many parts - he played three roles in that scene as well as the short-fingered villain, and Tamara McLaughlin as the cool and beautiful blonde heroine Pamela.

Despite the comedy send-up the script actually follows the movie plot closely.

Hero Richard Hannay meets a mysterious woman, Annabella Schmitt, played sinisterly enough by Tanya McCall, who reveals a plot to smuggle British military secrets out of the country at a time when war is imminent. That night, she is murdered in his apartment.

This brings on one of the funniest sequence in the show. Hannay, very gentlemanly give his bed to Frau Schmitt while he sleeps in his armchair. His guest collapses dead across his legs and Hannay then spends several minute trying to extricate himself from the situation with hilarious results. This one scene I thought might have run on for a little longer.

Then he is on the run with the cops and spies hot on his heels as he races into the unknown to solve the mystery of the professor with the missing fingertip, the tune he can’t get out of his head and how vaudeville act Mr. Memory fits into the whole scheme of things.

I don’t know how they did it, but among all comedy the cast managed to slip in some genuine suspense too.

Where Devitt had to keep up the old stiff upper lip bravado, Campagnolo and Tennison, along with Donnie Baxter and Darren King had their heads full of weird and wonderful people.

The train ride was a classic example. With a change of hat and accent, within the scene, they became plum-toned businessmen, an inaudible paper seller, a porter, a pair of cops and a couple of spies as well as badly dressed Scots husband and wife – and bearded Darren King brought the house down when he appeared in drag in the house of the mastermind with the missing fingertip.

Director Greg Scurr opened the show with the screen intro of the 1935 Hitchcock movie that starred Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll. It was a nice idea, but I felt it should have stopped before introducing the movie cast and the director, after all none of the people named were in the play. It just seemed a bit pointless.

I was irritated at times too by the many blackouts at scene changes. They went on too long and slowed down the action in a play that is supposed to in constant movement, but the actors did well and I’m sure that anyone seeing the play for the first time will have a lot of fun.

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