GSC’s ‘The 39 Steps’ is a comedic thriller



GLOUCESTER — Imagine Mel Brooks pressed into service to direct an Alfred Hitchcock movie. You might get something like Patrick Barlow’s witty stage adaptation of Hitchcock’s classic mystery thriller, The 39 Steps. The play version, currently in production at Gloucester Stage, is much more comedy than mystery. And as comedy, it’s very clever indeed.

Although the play includes every scene and most of the dialog from the 1935 film, the actors ham it up for comedic effect and comic/dramatic scenes are highlighted by Foley artist Malachi Rosen’s on-stage musical and theatrical sound effects.

Robert Walsh directs the production in which four actors play over 150 characters in the fast-paced story of Richard Hannay, a bored Londoner, whose attendance at a London Palladium show results in his getting swept up in a murder/espionage adventure with perilous implications for the entire UK.

Lewis D. Wheeler as Hannay is the only actor who stays in one character for the entire show. His co-stars, Amanda Collins, Paul Melendy and Gabriel Kuttner play all of the remaining characters, including spies, cops, milk men, train conductors and Scottish farmers in a frenetic series of costume and scene changes that only adds fuel to to the comic energy.

The actors brilliantly portray a revolving door of cultural caricatures with exaggerated cockney, German or Scottish accents as Hannay races against time to escape a false murder charge and stop evil foreign spies from escaping the country with secrets that could undermine Britain’s national security.

Along the way there is some great comic dialog, like this encounter between Hannay and a milkman delivering to his building.

Hannay: Are you married?

Milkman: Yes, but don’t rub it in.

Or the Scottish sheriff’s comment after a hymn book in Hannay’s breast pocket stopped a bullet from penetrating his chest.

“Some of those hymns are terrible hard to get through,” he observes.

Playwright Patrick Barlow’s script also includes lots of references to other Hitchcock films, including Rear Window and North by Northwest.

Foley artist Malachi Rosen of Marblehead occupies a booth in a rear corner of the stage and watching him create sound effects for thunder, rain, trains and cars only adds to the fun. The cliched, three-note “dun dun DUUUN!” music to signify dramatic scenes is also used to great comic effect.

A rotating series of set pieces including a free-standing door and window, several trunks and a couple of ladders are moved on and off stage as needed to create the chase scene on the Flying Scotsman, the escape on the Forth Bridge as well as travel by train and automobile. The motion of train and car travel is conveyed by the actors pantomiming a backward lean during acceleration and forward lurch upon stopping.

While secondary to the comedy, the mystery plot is not entirely incidental. Amid the laughs, the audience still roots for Hannay to clear his name and save the day.

The 39 Steps is as fun – and funny – as anything I’ve seen in a theater in a long time.
The 39 Steps runs through July 28 at Gloucester Stage Company, 267 East Main Street, Gloucester, MA. Performances are Wednesdays through Saturdays at 7:30 p.m., and Saturdays and Sundays at 2 p.m. Purchase tickets online or call the Gloucester Stage Box Office at 978-281-4433.

Photos by Jason Grow.

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