A classic British thriller with Python-esque verve
Usually plays are adapted into movies, and that idea as well as the way it’s addressed are at the center of Arctic Playhouse’s lively, cleverly-staged production of the Patrick Barlow adaptation of the film The 39 Steps, a version of which was directed by Alfred Hitchcock.
The film is itself an adaptation of a 1915 novel, and is freighted with several boxcars of mystery/thriller tropes, including an innocent man on the lam accused of murder, the mysterious femme fatale, a traitorous spy ring and nefarious leader, pursuing lawmen and a climactic final shoot-out. Indeed, one of the great things about the plot is that the audience intuitively anticipates what happens next.
This figures into how the play is delivered, with male and female leads, and four actors/stage hands that play every other character in the show, several dozen at least. The innate familiarity of the plot allows the show to be played in a broad fashion that breaks the fourth wall in delightful ways, under the direction of W. Richard Johnson.
Sitting on a train, the actors bounce and lean to convey the tracks, while the chameleon characters function through roles of newspaper salesboy, conductor, drunk lingerie salesmen, and constables. Meanwhile stage hands cross the front of the stage holding placards signaling the stops. Elsewhere, the stage hand of a stage hand is recruited to hold a wayward blind down.
This loose, playful energy drives the play from the quick scene changes to the broad slapstick-adjacent way many of the scenes are delivered, such as the elderly, romantic, “young love”- enabling hotel owner with basketballs for breasts. The trifle of a plot becomes easy to follow once you realize there’s not much to follow at all (the unspoken truth of many thrillers), and one can just enjoy the chase, which begins with a murdered spy in our hero Canadian Richard Hannay’s London flat.
Hannay, played by Daniel Holmes, is something of a bespectacled pipe-sporting houndstooth fop, necessary for him to flounder around both in pursuit and as the pursued. He does a remarkably good job with a character that’s far more acted upon than engaged in action, and required to be befuddled for much of the play, despite the plot’s thin pretext.
Ryan Foster plays opposite Holmes and is very good in the initial Emma Peal-ish spy role before she’s offed, early on, igniting the play-long chase. She reappears later as another innocent/his love interest, Pamela, sucked into Hannay’s chaos when she winds up handcuffed to him, while a pair of keystone cops deal with sheep in the road. Thus begins their madcap escape across the Scottish moors.
Here in the second act the play bogs down a bit, as the creativity that has until then transformed the versatile black box stage into a dozen locales flags, putting undue weight on the rickety structure of the “strangers thrown together, who hate than love each other.” This is not The African Queen, and the tonality of these scenes fails to match the energy and zip that’s preceded it.
It was opening night and it can be forgiven, but the two must subsist without help from the stage hands for long stretches of the second act, while struggling to create a Rosalind Russell/Cary Grant or Lauren Bacall/Humphrey Bogart kind of antagonistic frisson to power those moments, which wind up a bit too straight, in a play that’s much broader played.
It seems like the swampy, foggy moors themselves and their wet embrace of the couple could be rendered for more laughs perhaps to ease the load. Though it might also be a timing issue, as these scenes just didn’t feel crisp.
In the scheme of things these are quibbles. While popular for a moment in theater, these kinds of plays with imaginative use of props and stage hands to mount a slew of short, quick-hitting scenes aren’t much done these days, and it’s refreshing to see one, especially the playful way the show explores the edges of the audience’s suspension of disbelief. (This is an area where the real physical presence of an actor on stage makes such efforts far more effective than on-screen wall-breaking.)
We’d be remiss without mentioning the very talented support they receive from Kelly Barry, Rachel Bartlett, Graham Stokes and Annie Voss-Altman. Barry in particular seems to have a talent for broad comic large-/loud-ness, stealing several scenes with her willingness to really go with a character. Costumes, lighting and sound design were on point for the whole show, though there were a couple issues at points with projection/staging that might encourage bad ears to sit center/close. That said, understanding every syllable is hardly necessary to enjoying the performances or the plot.
The playhouse is a wonderful thing to behold in itself, wedding a main room with plenty of tables and a bar, utilized for frequent cabaret shows, to a standard, separate raised black box theater with very good lighting. This affords patrons an opportunity for a drink not only at intermission, but after the show while you digest what you’ve seen, perhaps with a guest.
It’s great to see a community theater deliver such a polished, professional performance of work that not only requires great timing and pace but delivers on the engaging blend of physical and satirical humor.
The 39 Steps, Friday and Saturday (plus Thursday of the final week), 7:30 p.m.; Sunday matinee 2 p.m. Through April 30. Arctic Playhouse, 1249 Main St., West Warwick; (401) 573-3443; www.thearcticplayhouse.com.
Chris Parker is a freelance journalist (The Guardian, Undark, Daily Beast, Billboard) and author of the book, King James Brings The Land a Crown, about the Cleveland Cavaliers’ 2016 championship. He lives in Providence.