By Patrick Barlow. Directed by Sarah Rodgers. A Circle Bright production. At the Norman and Annette Rothstein Theatre on Friday, March 1. Continues until March 10
A parody of Hitchcock’s spy-thriller film of the same name, Circle Bright’s production of The 39 Steps aims to delight both English- and Chinese-speaking audiences with the addition of Mandarin surtitles.
Director Sarah Rodgers’s take on the play delivers on the promise of farcical nonsense that makes for a solid performance for both first-time and veteran theatregoers of either language.
Barlow’s smash-hit adaptation follows the story of the dashing Richard Hannay (Jay Hindle), who becomes involved in a convoluted plot of murder and mystery when he meets a German spy named Annabella (Ella Simon). She is investigating something called the 39 Steps. And when Annabella is murdered in his apartment, Hannay is accused of being the killer, and must avoid being apprehended while also uncovering the secret of the 39 Steps.
The show derives much of its humour from Clowns #1 and #2 having to play over 100 different characters over the course of the play, often swapping roles at the drop of (or change of, in this case) a hat. Unfortunately, clowns David Marr and Kazz Leskard aren’t always able to keep up with the breakneck pace of the script when rapidly switching between personas, particularly during a train-station sequence. Yet, their talent is clear when they’re given the breathing room to play out quirky side characters over the course of a scene. This is the case in the interplay between the Scottish innkeepers, a giddy wife who speaks too fast to comprehend and her stoic husband, who is a man of very few, but very loud, words.
Hindle brings exactly what is needed to the role of Hannay: dynamic physicality, impeccable timing, and a magnetic charisma. Ella Simon leaves an impression with each of the multiple characters she takes on, especially the melodramatic Annabella Schmidt. The chemistry between the two lead actors is compelling enough to anchor the play amongst all the antics, and provides for a number of memorable moments. Hilarity ensues when Pamela and Richard share a bedroom while handcuffed to each other, and Richard’s hand is guided down Pamela’s legs as she removes her soaked stockings.
While the acting is praiseworthy, Murray Price's music and sound design truly steal the show. Pianist Matt Grinke inserts a great deal of personality by adding his own sound effects to accentuate his physicality. Whenever a performer mentions the name of the show, Grinke is sure to add a little jingle, giving the show an endearing sense of playfulness. Combining this with Tanya Schwaerzle's superb choreography, especially during the train escape sequence, elevates even the smallest snicker into uproarious laughter.
Finally, the Mandarin surtitles are a welcome addition, providing a bilingual theatregoing experience without seeming forced or tacked on. The surtitles are well-integrated to keep pace with the action, but are not obtrusive or otherwise distracting from what is happening on-stage.
All in all, whether you experience the play in Chinese or English, Circle Bright’s The 39 Steps is a feel-good farce that has laughs at every turn.