REVIEW: The 39 Steps (Queensland Theatre)

Hugh Parker as Richard Hannay and Liz Buchanan as Annabella Shmidt
Where? Cremorne Theatre, QPAC
When? February 24 – March 28, 2018
Part noir murder mystery and part comedy sketch, Queensland Theatre’s season of The 39 Steps makes brilliant use of physical comedy and farce, spy movie and thriller tropes, audience interaction and melodrama to deliver a theatre experience that will make you giggle and gasp.
Queensland Theatre’s production of John Buchan’s much-adapted novel and Hitchcock’s beloved spy thriller film is adapted for the stage by playwright Patrick Barlow and directed by John Halpin, whose programme note declares that “…we shall deliberately fail and triumph in equally stupid and hilarious measures.” The audience meets Englishman Richard Hannay, recently returned from Montreal and bored by the mundanities of upper-class life in London. He meets a beautiful woman, Annabella Schmidt, a spy who has uncovered a plot called The 39 Steps. When Annabella is murdered clutching a map of Scotland, Hannay takes up the cause – jumping through windows, out of trains, and into the arms of beautiful women to solve the mystery before it is too late.
This adaptation of The 39 Steps features 4 actors in the roles of 139 characters. Most of these are played by Bryan Probets and Leon Cain (credited as “Man 1” and “Man 2”), from bumbling policemen, to enthusiastic underwear salesmen, to a very patriotic German couple. Hugh Parker stars as the dashing, heroic, and very British protagonist Richard Hannay, and Liz Buchanan as the various beautiful women along his path.
Richard Hannay (Hugh Parker) and Pamela (Liz Buchanan)
Hugh Parker gave a strong performance, as did Liz Buchanan despite limiting character roles that were very similar. Bryan Probets is a man of many nationalities, putting on impressively consistent accents across the continent of Great Britain and all the way to Germany. Probets and Cain together were entirely brilliant, switching roles, hats, voices, and costumes like a well-oiled machine…not to mention their wonderful dancing!
Leon Cain and Bryan Probets
The work employs simple but effective physical comedy – solid slapstick, exaggerated characters, running gags that occasionally drag out. Excellent use was made of the space and stage, with the set being multifunctional and using a lot of props. Lighting and sound, designed by David Murray and Stuart Day respectively, really gave the work a sense of place and often added layers to the comedy. Lighting in particular was cleverly used to distinguish between locations, or inside and outside. Special mention must also go to the rather magnificent portrait of Bryan Probets pictured below.
It was disappointing that Leon Cain only played women that were either old, unattractive, or both, especially given that Queensland Theatre has often espoused the importance of women and female-centric stories, both on and offstage. It would have been forgivable if the roles were reversed and Buchanan – the only woman in the four-person cast – was also utilised in male roles, or if the scenes demanded more than one female character. This was unfortunately not the case – Buchanan played only the roles of beautiful women wooed by Hannay, and there were few scenes where both Buchanan and Cain were in female roles. This did not detract from the excellent performances of the individual artists, but men dressed as women for the sake of laughs is a tired and one-sided trope that could have been reversed or replaced in this instance.
Overall, the work was laugh-out-loud funny and strikingly staged – a fun reworking of a classic tale, performed by a wonderfully compatible cast.
You can find more information and purchase tickets to The 39 Steps here.


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