The 39 Steps

by | Mar 12, 2024

By Jessica Taurins

An adaptation of a play, based on a movie, based on a book, sounds like a bit of a messy evening. Luckily for The 39 Steps, the intention is to be messy! Based on Alfred Hitchcock’s 1935 spy thriller, which is loosely based on John Buchan’s 1915 novel, the stage version of The 39 Steps is a madcap affair, with as many twists and turns as a train car made from chests and boxes.

The show follows a man – Richard Hannay, played by Sorab Kaikobad – bored by the drudgery of his days, who meets a woman at a play – Annabella Schmidt, played by Yvette Turner – and has his life turned around by her death in his apartment. A serious and frightening plot indeed! Or it would be, if the remaining 150ish characters were not all played by the same two ‘clowns’ – Charlie Cousins, who is also the director, and Jackson McGovern.

Cousins and McGovern are the spies peering into Hannay’s window, and (all in the spirit of the play) walk offstage a little too early, having to quickly return as Hannay returns to look out the window a second time. They are also the police, and travelling salesmen, and a paper boy, and occasionally all of the above simultaneously. They are sometimes women, sometimes men – and again, occasionally both at the same time – differentiated by wigs, or coats, or huge swinging… balloons beneath their dresses.

Cousins and McGovern throw themselves into their roles with reckless abandon, and are the stars of the show. It can be easy to forget that, while each of their characters are distinct, the actors are the same, and remain onstage for the vast majority of the performance. In a show so heavily reliant on slapstick and physical comedy, as well as excellent timing, the two clowns are standout performers.

On the more demure side – although not without their moments – are Kaikobad and Turner. Turner also plays two of the other women in the show, all in love with Hannay in some way or another, and her shifting mannerisms between them are delightful to behold. The German spy Annabella Schmidt is perhaps a little too much of a parody, with a heavy accent and a pretty average wig, but Pamela the misbeliever and Margaret the Scottish farmer’s wife are a little more relatable. Turner is a joy to watch across the performance, though without the physicality as present with the male characters.

Kaikobad is the only actor playing one character throughout, and his performance has a great depth for it. As Hannay he is a comedic genius in some moments, while plaintive and heartfelt in others, all within the silliness of the play. I can see why so many women (and the occasional radio presenter) fall for him almost instantly, despite being an internationally wanted criminal. Kaikobad’s physical comedy is at its greatest during a train chase, where all the characters flap their coats and shake their hats to simulate the wind atop the train. Kaikobad in particular has a wonderful moment of bending physics to simulate falling from the side of the train, which is a real delight to watch.

Eloise Kent – set and costume designer – is to be commended. Throughout the show there are individual costumes for almost all the characters, even if those are simply different hats. Still, each character is unique in their design, ensuring a smooth transition for the actors.

The set design is quite deceptive in its simplicity, but really well designed for the size of the theatre and the usage across the stage. The backdrop of an idyllic Scottish field becomes a shadow puppet screen with the right lighting cues – designed by Niklas Pajanti – and all props onset are moveable to become whatever is required. A chest could be a seat, a train cart, or a bed, ensuring the audience can suspend their disbelief even further during the show so all seems perfectly normal. A fourth-wall-breaking comment where Turner asks Kaikobad to ‘move his bed’ out of the way so she can roll over a box to act as a dining table is particularly amusing.

Overall, while the first act is a bit slow and mildly repetitive, The 39 Steps has so many shining moments that it can be easy to forget. The best moments of each scene stick in my mind and all else falls away, lost in the amusement of characters getting stuck in a sheep fence over and over. The clowns Cousins and McGovern very much steal the show with their non-stop character changes, rounding out the more serious Kaikobad and Turner well as they bring their spy thriller noir characters to life.

Images: Cameron Grant

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