It might seem an odd composition of humour and suspense, but anyone who followed Alfred Hitchcock’s illustrious film career knows that the one can co-exist quite seamlessly with the other.
However, in Peninsula Productions’ current summertime stage effort, 39 Steps, White Rock’s professional theatre troupe tackles Patrick Barlow’s retelling of the Hitchcock classic, replacing much of the suspense with sketch-comedy-styled entertainment, in the spirit of Monty Python, SCTV, perhaps even The Carol Burnett Show.
Based on the 1915 ‘shocker’ novel by John Buchan, the work was enhanced 20 years later with Hitchcock’s cinematic flourish of comedic intrigue, introducing the world to the director’s signature elegant, icy blonde. Barlow’s additions – another 70 years on – kept most of Hitchcock’s laugh-strewn dialogue but added modern, energetic sensibilities, as well as the comical confines, of a four-person stage play.
So what we have is adventure-writer Buchan’s intrigue as interpreted by master-of-suspense Hitchcock, re-envisioned by comic-actor Barlow and performed, 100 years after its inception, under the direction of Matthew Bissett at the Coast Capital Playhouse.
Confused? You just might be, for about five minutes or so, while adjusting to the props-scattered stage. But then the whole production hits its cruising speed, taking the audience on a ride filled with laughter and vitality, if not with a few bumps along the way.
Cory Haas presents Buchan’s accidental hero, Richard Hannay, who uncovers an international mystery while being accused of murder, with conscious leading-man aplomb. Haas’s Hannay clearly knows he’s a character in a stage play, and doesn’t hesitate, from time to time, to involve, and interact with, the audience – not to mention the crew.
Haas, who not long ago was seen locally mostly reffing games for Semiahmoo Minor Hockey, is one to watch for in future plays on this stage and others further afield. He commands the audience’s attention early on, and offers all sorts of throw-away asides and expressions that add to our enjoyment.
The rest of the cast each play multiple characters from Hitchcock’s adaptation, with Laura Caswell embodying Hannay’s potential love interests, and quick-changing ‘Clowns’ (as credited) Ashley O’Connell and Ben Odberg tackling, successfully, dozens of British accents and physical gymnastics.
That all four players, at last Friday’s opening gala, made their interactions seem so effortless (when there can be little doubt that the energy required is substantial) attests to the talent on display.
Director Bissett’s stagecraft is evident, as his cast make full use – and re-use – of every item on the packed stage, though I on occasion questioned his anachronistic choices when they furthered neither the plot nor, sufficiently, the laugh quotient.
Other stage productions of 39 Steps, I’m told, focus on deft transitions and theatrical effects. Given the practical limitations of this one, Bissett wisely chose to make such restraints part of the overall fun.
Produced by Wendy Bollard and Janet Ellis, 39 Steps runs until July 25 at Coast Capital Playhouse, 1532 Johnston Rd.
Lance Peverley is editor of Peace Arch News.