Secret codes, secret agents, a secret spy ring...and four actors taking on 150 roles. Manitoba Theatre Centre's production of The 39 Steps promises as much to comedy fans as it does for espionage-movie fans...and pulls off the impressive feat of pleasing both.
Patrick Barlow's 2006 stage adaptation is based on Alfred Hitchcock's 1935 movie (in turn based on a novel by John Buchan, who'd go from writing spy novels to becoming Governor General of Canada). The novel, movie, and stage play all follow everyman hero Richard Hannay, a Brit ex-pat (living in Canada, but returned to England), who finds himself quite accidentally embroiled in the machinations of a pre-war spy game. Hitch's movie changed the novel's plot considerably, but here, the movie's plot is kept intact - but reshaped into a farcical romp which is part tribute to Hitchcock, and part send-up of the entire "spy" genre. The result is possibly best described as the bizarre love child of Mel Brooks and Alfred Hitchcock.
The biggest surprise here is how well that works - a testament to both Barlow's clever concept and director Tracey Flye's irreverent sense of humour in her staging.
As mentioned before, it's just a four-person cast - Adam Brazier (last seen here in MTC's Rocky Horror Show) as Richard is the only actor who plays a single role. Local favourite Sarah Constible plays the three main female characters, and it's wonderful to see her going back to her Royal Lichtenstein Theatre Company sketch comedy roots to create some outstandingly funny characters. Credited as "Clown #1" and "Clown #2," Eddie Glen and Mark Weatherley play every single supporting role, sometimes switching characters mid-scene by simply spinning around and putting on a different hat...and they nearly steal the show in the process.
All of this leaves the actors with a lot of heavy lifting to do. They use minimal set and props, so a lot of the gags rely on vey low-budget, basic theatricality - miming, making their own sound effects - and it works. Take, for example, the scene where Richard is chased across a moving train - represented by just a few trunks, with the actors miming flailing in the wind, billowing out their own coats behind them to give the sense of speed and wind. It's very basic, but also very, very funny.
This calls for the show to be "big" - it's playing for laughs that are often very meta-theatrical, and often absurd - and if I have any issue with the show, it's that sometimes it could go even "bigger" (that said, I saw a preview show, and have the feeling the show was still finding its "size" - as the run continues, I suspect it'll find more consistent footing).
But in the end, The 39 Steps plays for laughs, and delivers - provided you don't take the material too seriously, which Flye's production certainly does not. And given his sense of humour, I think even Hitch would approve.