Adaptation

The 39 Steps winks at the Huntington; All the King’s Men thrills at Trinity
By CAROLYN CLAY  |  September 26, 2007

If your inner Mr. Memory — not to mention your outer Blockbuster — is operating, you recall The 39 Steps, the 1935 Alfred Hitchcock thriller that found fugitive hero Richard Hannay pursuing spies while being pursued by police across the foggy black-and-white moors of Scotland. The Olivier Award–winning, Broadway-bound British stage adaptation currently spreading its minimalist means across the Boston University Theatre mainstage courtesy of the Huntington Theatre Company (through October 14) is less a thriller than a tongue-in-cheek homage, not just to an early exemplar of the Hitchcock œuvre but also to the hoary but beloved traditions of British Music Hall and provincial rep as trickled down to Monty Python.

The conceit is that the troupe with hubris enough to reprise the iconic film on stage — complete with hubbub at the London Palladium, escape on the Flying Scotsman, mortal peril on the Forth Rail Bridge, and serial pursuit through hill and dale — consists of four frantic thespians wielding some lightweight props and a lot of bravado. Fortunately, the quartet playing the quartet, under the snappy direction of Maria Aitken, operates with a precision more suggestive of the film’s racing train than of the play’s overburdened troupers. So if the result is Hitchcock married to Noises Off, the show is nonetheless a film buff’s delight, if one that slightly overstays its welcome. In a 91-minute theater piece (excluding intermission) that mirrors almost frame by frame an 87-minute film, a little loving whimsy goes a long way.

This winking mix of paean and parody — officially titled Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps — is the work of British actor and writer Patrick Barlow, based on an idea by Simon Corble and Nobby Dimon (and, of course, the 1915 John Buchan novel that attracted Hitchcock). Barlow is not a newcomer to the Reduced Shakespeare Company approach, having created the satirically named National Theatre of Brent, which specializes in “two-man epics for the theater.” Here he doubles the Crayolas in his box, with four performers instead of two, but the concept is the same. Charles Edwards, the natty star of the British production, portrays dashing fugitive Hannay, running in place with chiseled determination and not a lock out of place. Jennifer Ferrin triples in the main female roles: the quickly murdered spy who draws Hannay into a web of protecting military secrets from sinister foreign forces; the cowed young wife of the dour Scottish “crofter” who puts Hannay up for half a night; and the cool, blonde precursor to Grace Kelly and Tippi Hedren played by Madeleine Carroll in the film, to whose disbelieving personage Hannay is famously handcuffed. Two bananas tagged in the program as “Clown” play everyone –and everything — else, including a malevolent bush, a shower-curtain waterfall, and some very homely older women in socks and garters. Oh yes, when things get too busy even for the nimble foursome abetted by expert sound and lighting, an uncredited, disembodied arm gets into the act.

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