It sounds like something that started as a bet.
Creating a stage version of Alfred Hitchcock’s classic 1935 movie, The 39 Steps – a very British spy thriller – would be hard to manage even with an unlimited budget and all the technology of 21st century Broadway.
Sudden shots in a music hall, a murder in a London flat, a desperate railway journey to Scotland, a pell-mell flight across the highlands with police in hot pursuit… it beggars the imagination.
Try it on a bare-bones set with just four actors – and a grab-bag of costumes and props – who must somehow portray close to 150 roles, plus a few inanimate objects, as well as suggest every change of location.
English playwright, director and performer Simon Corble did just that in 1995 with collaborator Nobby Dimon, and the results of the experiment in pure theatre were picked up and rewritten 10 years later by Patrick Barlow in what became a London, and subsequently worldwide, hit.
Now The 39 Steps is coming to White Rock’s Coast Capital Playhouse, (July 8-25, 1532 Johnston Rd.) thanks to Wendy Bollard and Geoff Giffin’s Peninsula Productions.
Director is well-known Vancouver theatre personality Matthew Bissett (A Night On Broadway), with Corey Haas starring as suave hero Richard Hannay – and every other role being played by Laura Caswell, Ashley O’Connell and Ben Odberg.
The results of their determined, demented efforts to reproduce the film are bound to be laughable, Peninsula artistic director Bollard said.
Which, of course, is the whole point – in its stage incarnation, The 39 Steps has evolved into a high-camp comedy that pits the plot of John Buchan’s stiff-upper-lip novel, and the old-school heroics of Hannay, against the frenzied efforts of the cast to live up to the daffy premise.
“I love the fresh take that Matthew has on the play,” Bollard said. “He’s decided it’s about four actors in a theatre who have decided to put this on – and they have to use whatever comes to hand in the theatre. The way Matthew is staging it, all the actors are doing their own scene changes.
“There’s lots of room for a lot of fun, a lot of creativity – and a lot of goofiness.”
It helps, of course, when you have a director like Bissett – whose playful, improvisational approach Bollard lauds – and four actors who are more than willing to go there, including South Surrey resident Haas, who is also doubling as part-time administrator for the Peninsula season .
“Corey as Hannay is doing a great job,” Bollard said. “He’s very funny. During the auditions he was doing all these different accents, and suddenly at one point, when he came to do a Hannay line, he lost the accent completely.
“He just leaned over casually and said ‘apparently Hannay’s Mexican!'”
Laura Caswell, from Toronto – known for her own Carol Burnett tribute show – came to Bollard’s attention through mutual friends who had worked with her at Stratford.
She plays three female roles: mysterious German-accented femme fatale ‘Annabella Smith,’ the browbeaten wife of an abusive highlands crofter, and heroine Pamela, who spends much of the show in stubborn resistance to the idea that Hannay could have been swept up – innocently – in a plot to smuggle aviation secrets to a ‘foreign power’.
“She was visiting family on the West Coast when she decided to audition for the show – there were many great people who came out to audition, but she just immediately ‘got it’,” Bollard said.
All of the other roles are played by Irish actor O’Connell – who made his West Coast debut with the White Rock Players Club before winning attention for his comedic skills in such Vancouver shows as the Arts Club’s hit Spamalot – and versatile local favourite Odberg (who also starred in Peninsula Productions’ The Game’s Afoot and Blithe Spirit).
Even the physical contrast (“Ben’s quite tall, while Ashley’s about five-foot-six) lends humour to the clownish roles they play, Bollard said.
The non-stop action has them morphing from spies, to travelling salesmen, to a hotel keeper and his wife – almost literally at the drop of a hat, she said, noting that other actors are known to have sweated off pounds during runs of the show.
Clothes also do a lot of the work in creating the look of the show, and Bollard credits Mahara Sinclaire with doing “a phenomenal job” with vintage styles that don’t slavishly follow the costume plot of the London and New York productions.
The audience is invited to “play along and have fun” with the lightweight summer show, Bollard said.
“And the whole thing is over in just two hours, including intermission.”
Tickets ($25; seniors/children $20) are available from www.peninsulaproductions.org or 604-536-7535.