Clague Playhouse’s ‘The 39 Steps’ is banging good fun
It is intriguing the road that certain theatrical works take get to the stage. A case in point is “The 39 Steps”. It began as a quite serious1935 British spy thriller movie that was directed by none other than Alfred Hitchcock and starred Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll. The movie was based on the 1915 novel of the same name by John Buchan.
Much later (2005 to be exact), the original story was changed to a condensed parody by Simon Corble and Nobby Dimon. It premiered at the Georgian Theatre Royal in Richmond, North Yorkshire, England then on to village halls across the north of England. In 2005 Patrick Barlow rewrote his own version. that premiered at the West Yorkshire Playhouse then on to the Tricycle Theatre in London then soon to London's West End at the Criterion Theatre in September of 2006. From the West End the play sailed across the Atlantic to the Boston University Theatre then on to Broadway in the American Airlines Theatre. It transferred to the Helen Hayes Theatre in January of 2009.
In this new rendering there are only four actors beginning with the reluctant hero, Richard Hannay (Jeff Bartholomew) playing opposite of three female characters all played by the same woman (Aleece Roach). The other two actors in the play, Clown #1 (Vince Stillitano) and Clown #2 (Steven Schuerger) take on the enormous task of every other character in the play including villains, men, women, children, heroes, spies, police, Scottish B&B owners, train passengers, inanimate objects and “Mr. Memory” and his Assistant to name a few.
The show is played strictly for laughs as a Readers Digest-ish version of the movie as all of the original scenes are rendered including the chase on the Flying Scotsman, the Forth Bridge escape, the first ever on stage bi-plane crash and the sensational death defying finale in the London Palladium. This show has it all. There is drama, intrigue, danger, excitement, escapes, mistaken identities and laughter...lots of laughter. For fans of Alfred Hitchcock films, subtle and not so subtle hints of his movies career are referenced and include Strangers on a Train, Rear Window, Psycho, Vertigo and North by Northwest.
Needless to say, the script demands a series of lightning fast quick changes that includes the “Clowns” to play multiple characters at the same time as they slide from each character and accent with ease.
As the stage lights come up we find Canadian Richard Hannay in his rented London flat. He tells us of his boring and humdrum life in which nothing exciting ever happens. Realizing his need for stimulation he decides to go to the theater. While watching the act of “Mr. Memory” a strange woman with an even stranger accent sits next to him and after shots are heard in the theater, persuades Richard to take her back to his flat.
At his rather plain abode, Annabella Smith confesses that she is a spy and that it was her who fired the shots. She did it to create a diversion in order to elude a team of assassins that she was following but who in turn discovered her. Her missions is to uncover a plot to steal vital British military secrets. The mastermind of this conspiracy is missing the top joint of the little finger on his left hand. She alludes to “The 39 Steps” but gives no further clues as to what it means. She also points out the two mysterious men loitering around the street lamp post in front of his flat.
Later that night Annabella wakes Smith (asleep in his easy chair since she has
the bed room) and warns him to flee immediately as she dies in his arms from a knife in her back. Clutched in her hands is a map of the Scottish Highlands with an area called “Killin” and a building named “Alt-na-Shellach” circled. With the help of his milkman he eludes the assassins and boards the Flying Scotsman express train to Scotland. At Waverly Station in Edinburgh he sees the newspaper with his photo and an article accusing him of murder. As the police search the train he bursts into another compartment and begins kissing the woman occupying it telling her he is innocent but must avoid capture. Pamela fights him off and alerts the police. At the Forth Rail Bridge, Hannay jumps from the train into the river.
He makes his way north and comes across a tenant farmer and his much younger wife, Margaret who allow him to spend the night. Margaret is smitten by the stranger and when the police close in she gives Richard her husband’s coat with his hymnbook in the breast pocket. The police give chase across the moors using two biplanes, but Hannay manages to evade them as they crash.
He arrives at the manor house of Alt-na-Shellach where he meets Professor Jordan as a birthday party is going on. Richard notices that Jordan is missing the top joint of the little finger of his right hand and realizes that this is in fact the master criminal that he is seeking. Jordon implores Hannay to join his group of British Nazi spies (known as the 39 Steps) but when Richard refuses the Professor shoots him in the chest.
One would think that a complex work such as this would be beyond the reach of a small community theater but we are talking about Clague Playhouse. With scant props and the brilliant use of a shadow screen they manage to pull it off in grand fashion.
The secret is in the cast. They are absolutely brilliant. Jeff Bartholomew is perfect as the bored uptight transplanted Canadian. His accent is impeccable. Equally adroit is Aleece Roach taking on the triple roles of femme fatales (Annabella/Pamela/Margaret) who interact with Richard Hannay through the course of the play. Then there are “The Clowns” of Vince Stillitano and Steven Schuerger who are having a great time on stage taking on the many many roles as listed above. They manage to perfectly portray each character and accent with precision and great humor. The four actors are a well oiled machine.
As noted in the Director Notes, Robert Gibb talks about the challenges of staging this particular production. The show has 33 scenes set in 20 locations with planes, trains and automobiles thrown in for good measure. Four actors portray dozens of characters. The stage craft employed includes shadow play, projections and puppetry. There are 100 light cues and nearly 200 sound cues. This all comes about because of the production staff that includes: Robert Gibb (Director), Lance Switzer (Production Manager and Lighting Designer), Jeff Lockshine (Projection Design), Dale A. Hruska (Sound Design), Ron Newell (Set Design), Meg Parish (Costume Design), Lisa L. Wiley (Props Design), and Vanessa Alachkar and Christina Easter (Props Runners) as well as the twenty+ people who work so hard behind the scenes. Kudos to you all!
As I have said before, “This is the little theater that can!” as once again they tackle a show of highly technical requirements and pull it off without a single glitch. If you are a fan of farcical comedies you really should give this show a view. Don’t be surprised if Alfred makes his famous cameo sometime during the evening. As the British would say, “Jolly Good Show!”
The Clague Playhouse production of “The 39 Steps” will be on stage in their theater located at 1371 Clague Road, Westlake, Ohio through October 8, 2023. For more information and tickets go to www.clagueplayhouse.org or call (440) 331-0403).