Bradley Bishop, Lauren Tamke, Lucas Anders, and Samantha Beck in The 39 Steps. Photo credit Scott Henderson, Henderson Images.
During the last two seasons of theatre performance in pandemic times, I’ve seen a lot of small-cast productions – which makes sense, fewer people in the rehearsal hall means less potential exposure and easier distancing – and a lot of serious themes. Which also makes sense, as our society’s had time to think about some difficult issues over the last couple of years. I even got to direct a show fitting those descriptions.
When I watched Peter Pan Goes Wrong at the Citadel last month, I realized that I’d been missing the experience of watching a large cast do ridiculous and unexpected things on stage, along with my more thought-provoking theatre-going.
With Walterdale Theatre’s current production of The 39 Steps, directed by Kristen Finlay, I got that experience. There are only six actors (Lucas Anders, Lauren Tamke, and an ensemble of four: Samantha Beck, Bradley Bishop, Liam McKinnon, Rico Pisco), but I think there are more than a hundred characters. Some of them in disguise. All of them in different costumes (Nicole English) and many of them with different accents,
As for “ridiculous and unexpected”, I kept giggling with delight at what was happening in front of me. I’d read this script before, but there was so much happening on stage besides the dialogue. Even the movement of set pieces was fun and silly. And since the action took the protagonist Richard Hannay (Lucas Anders) from his new flat in 1930s London to a West End show, taking a train to Scotland, leaping from a moving train over the Forth Rail Bridge, to a Highland croft, a misty moor, and a few other atmospheric locations, what I thought were simple set pieces (set and prop design Taylor Howell) turned out to transform into convincing backgrounds for many locations. A complex atmospheric sound design (Anne Marie Szucs) helped to set the scenes clearly and added to the humour and the suspense.
One of my favourite little details was the way I could see quickly that the curved row of rehearsal boxes was a moving train, because of the way everyone’s movements illustrated the carriage’s bumpy movement. I also loved Margaret, Tamke’s understated portrayal of a young Scottish farm wife yearning for travel and cities and the for exotic visitor Hannay, and Mister Memory (Liam McKinnon), the quirky music-hall performer answering trivia questions from his audience (ensemble members who must have slipped in to the Walterdale audience). Lucas Anders plays only one character, the protagonist Richard Hannay, but maintains the high pace (often running across the stage) and clear motivation that drives the somewhat-farfetched plot to its not-quite-predictable happy conclusion.
This story originated as a 1915 adventure novel by John Buchan, British writer and parliamentarian who later became Governor-General of Canada. My father was fascinated by Buchan, and shared his musty hardcover copies of The 39 Steps, Greenmantle, and Prester John with me. I also remember Dad showing me the 1935 Hitchcock film adaptation, and delighting in the detail of Hannay being Canadian in the movie. This stage version was written by Patrick Barlow in 2005, and it pulls from both the book and the movie as well as from many tropes and expectations of film-noir, slapstick, and early-20th-century spy thrillers to create a great parody which is very funny whether or not you already know the source material.
The 39 Steps is playing at Walterdale Theatre until Saturday May 21st. You can get advance tickets at Tix on the Square. If a performance is not sold out you can also get them at the door an hour before showtime. Masks are required, house capacity remains limited, and auditorium ventilation has HEPA filters.