JWR Articles: Live Event - The Thirty-nine Steps (Director: Kelly Daniels) - March 14, 2011 id="543337086">

The Thirty-nine Steps

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Bring back the clowns

Former Canadian Governor General and writer John Buchan likely had no idea that his attempt at a “dime novel” would have such a storied life as he described it to his friend, Thomas Arthur Nelson, “… the romance where the incidents defy the probabilities, and march just inside the borders of possibilities.” (The book was dedicated to Nelson in 1915).

Twenty years later, Alfred Hitchcock brought his considerable talents to bear, turning out one of his best-loved films (Charles Bennett’s adaptation had no qualms about changing locales, gender and tone).

Further film and television versions have come and gone before playwright Patrick Barlow had his turn at the incredible tale of a bored man whose life suddenly erupts into a riot of intrigues, murder and espionage. Perhaps the cast list gives away what’s in store: Richard Hannay is the only player who has one role. All of the action follows his struggle to unravel the truth (early on he is accused of murder then opts to head to the Scottish Highlands in search of a maniacal professor who seems to be behind the plot). Jason Cadieux dug into the fantastical role with zest, if only the upper-crust accent could maintain the veracity of the first few scenes. No matter. His physical comedy skills were spot on: wriggling underneath a corpse has never been funnier (the payoff a stroke of “daggerdly” genius); being handcuffed to a beauty as she removed wet stockings couldn’t be entirely seen—tears in the eyes do that on occasion.

Jenny L. Wright took on all of the female parts, notably the hilarious accent combo of Annabella Schmidt (“finger” has never sounded so delightfully foreign) and love interest, Pamela.

As fine as the principal roles were portrayed, it fell to Clown 1 (Jon Osbaldeston) and Clown 2 (Lorne Kennedy) to become Men of a Thousand Faces (cross-reference below) in the dozens of characters, animals and inanimate objects that drive Buchan’s “shocker” into the realm of farce where the plot doesn’t matter but the yuks abound.

Osbaldeston makes such a beguiling “wife” (countryside or vast estate provides the opportunity for a marvellous range of “nudge nudge, wink, wink” inflection and delicious innuendo). When it’s time for Lady Bracknell to hit the boards in St. Catharines, the part is his/hers.

With such a dazzling display a few seasons ago in The President (cross-reference below) nothing was too much to ask Kennedy. Highlights here include his depiction of a poor Scots crofter and hat technique—switching personas with every placement. Rehearsals must have been a blast.

But when the two funny men are collectively in hot pursuit of Hannay or the next guffaw, the show shifts into high gear with a course set for North by Northwest that the famed film director would applaud at every turn. The famous Mr. Memory scenes were excellent (invoking a curious resonance with The Entertainer). All that was missing to forge a link to previous productions was for director Kelly Daniels to steal on stage for a quick cameo.

Daniels’ affinity for the material was obvious at once. The opening cast parade/set-the-stage was a triumph on its own. Whoever chose the dance hall/big band charts gave the impetus for lots of jazz hands and extra zip between set-ups. Throughout the night the changes were near-flawless—much of the staging also had its desired effect on the funny bone (this Windows 2011 is no Microsoft product).

Only the unevenness of the writing prevented the overall effect from moving up a notch to greatness. By going for the comic jugular, Barlow set himself an impossible task. Falling back to cheap laughs (“So Bob’s your Uncle.”) only betrays a shortage of understanding of the arches needed to maintain the many moments of zaniness. It’s no surprise that such brilliant material as Ferenc Molnár’s President is short. Weaving in a dramatic narrative and unexpected love story could have broken up the many hilarious moments, but insisting on “gagging” everyone made the larger characters seem to come in and out of the action without consistent purpose. Writing a droller Hannay would have provided a much more solid foundation for the others to bounce off.

Still, when all of the cylinders are firing, here’s a show that clown lovers everywhere will enjoy whether following the steps or not. JWR

Ed. note: The President—once more featuring Kennedy—is being performed at this year’s Shaw Festival.

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Director - Kelly Daniels
Adapted for the stage by - Patrick Barlow
Based on the film by - Alfred Hitchcock
Based on a novel by - John Buchan
Lighting Design - Kirsten Watt
Sound Design - Freddy Gabrsek
Further information, future screening/performance/exhibition dates,
purchase information, production sponsors:
City of St. Catharines Downtown Alliance for the Performing Arts Lyndesfarne Theatre Projects
Cross-reference(s): Please click on the image link(s) below
for related work: