Encore Michigan

Tipping Point’s ’39 Steps’ a funny homage to Alfred Hitchcock

Review February 03, 2020 David Kiley

NORTHVILLE, Michigan–When you see a play that is essentially trying to recreate an iconic film through stagecraft, it helps to have seen the film. But in the case of The 39 Steps, the play holds up pretty well for patrons who may not have seen the 1935 Alfred Hitchcock film.

The play, running at The Tipping Point, by Patrick Barlow and written in 2005, opens with protagonist Richard Hannay in his London flat musing about his life and he decides to go to a show to raise his spirits. It is at the London palladium that his adventure begins when he is watching a Burlesque show featuring “Mr. Memory,” a guy who has an encyclopedic memory.

The plot of the film–and the play–is that Hannay ends up in his flat with a lady spy who was being watched at the Palladium, and followed to his flat. In the middle of the night she ends up dead with a knife in her back. Hannay flees his apartment for the Scottish village the spy, Anabella Schmidt, told him was where she was headed on her case. On the train, he eludes the police and in a fit of derring-do, gets off the train on the Forth bridge. He then has to elude henchmen of the traitor that bumped off Anabella. Along the way, he sets out to solve how the spy ring plans to get the Air Ministry’s plans for a new fighter-plane engine out of the country.

Hitchcock made essentially the same film a few times. Besides The 39 Steps, the plots of Sabotage, Young and Innocent and North By Northwest are nearly identical. The Fugitive is yet another remake, and even has an homage scene lifted from Hithcock’s film. What makes this 39 Steps fun and funny is how the cast quite literally recreates the film on stage. Andrew Papa plays Hannay with all the funny straight-man qualities required for the role. Sayre Fox plays Anabella, as well as the young wife of a farmer Hannay encounters in his quest through the Scottish countryside. Two critical roles, billed as Clown 1 and Clown 2 are played by two of the best improvisational and flexible actors around–Dave Davies and David Parker. They have to play all the other roles in the film–the henchman, the Scotland yard inspector, a bra salesman and businessman on the train, parade walkers, a milkman, political meeting emcee, a cleaning woman, and so on.

Davies and Parker provide the comic energy of the play as the audience always delights in watching them change characters seconds apart just by changing hats. As two henchman, they appear in the audience in trench coats holding part of a lamp-post to reflect the turn in the film when they are across the street from Hannay’s flat. Ms. Fox hangs in with them every step, and she nails her role with just the right flavor of comedy to make play work so well. Again—the play holds up if you have not seen the play, but it’s twice the fun if you have. It can be viewed on Amazon Prime Video.

Directed by James Kuhl, the set is dominated by metal gridwork over the stage and a wall with a shuttered window upstage that gives the players a neutral and useful canvas on which to make the scenes of the film come alive.

For those who are fans of the film, The 39 Steps comes across as a fan piece, but that is not to relegate the play to some sort of sub-standard rating. The play, and this production, is huge fun, and captures Hitchcock’s knack for spinning a yarn with characters and characterizations that are funny. That Hannay would encounter a lingerie salesman on the play, and a stern avaricious, bible-thumping farmer with a young hot wife in the middle of the Scottish moors is simply great stuff–lovely, textured writing and film-making.

The film has always had a dedicated following, and the deliciousness of the writing and story is what it makes it an ideal film to parody and pay homage.

Week of 2/17/2020

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