The 39 Steps has really been around the block.
Originally a 1915 novel by John Buchan, Alfred Hitchcock adapted the story of a notorious fugitive and his romantic entanglements for the screen in 1935. Then, 60 years later, it was reimagined again as a theatrical comedy by Simon Corble and Nobby Dimon, only to be rewritten a decade after that by Patrick Barlow, before a run on Broadway where it was nominated for six Tony Awards and snagged two.
Now, the story will see its first ever site-specific outdoor production, courtesy of the County Stage Company in beautiful Bloomfield, Ontario.
“Having so much source material is a real benefit,” said Monica Dottor, who directs the production. “The novel is very serious, the movie is film noir, and the play is a fast-paced comedic satire. With the performers playing so many parts, there’re a lot of ridiculous quick changes, which are inherently funny because you’re watching the actors struggle to keep everything on track.”
The play opens with the hero Richard Hannay (played by Brandon McGibbon) watching a demonstration by a man with a photographic memory. When a fight breaks out, Hannay leaves with Annabella Schmidt (Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster) who brings him to her apartment, only to reveal she’s a spy being chased by a team of assassins because she’s involved in a plot to steal military secrets.
What follows is a madcap adventure unfolding over more than two dozen locations around Great Britain. Along with McGibbon and Ch’ng Lancaster, Helen Belay and Courtenay Stevens round out the cast, performing nearly 150 different roles together. The volume of locations in combination with the number of characters brings about its own kind of comedy.
“We were really lucky to get the cast that we got,” said Dottor. “They’re great actors, but they also have a lot of special skills that we put to use. I’m consistently in awe of their willingness and openness to just try the stupidest things and make them work.”
From early in the process, the company knew they would be working without a stage crew, meaning all of the transitions between scenes would depend on the performers.
“When I first read the text, my immediate thought was, ‘How are we going to do this?’” Dottor recalled. “The script requires a bunch of blackouts, which are literally impossible in the space we’re using, so we knew every element of the production would be visible. I work a lot in contemporary circus, so I’m always interested in seeing the mechanisms that make things happen, rather than trying to hide them from the audience. Seeing objects and people move and transform in front of you can be really magical if it’s done right.”
Conventional theatres tend to be highly controlled spaces. Gaps where light or sound can sneak in are blocked to limit any distraction from what’s happening on stage or interference with the effects the team has worked to produce. But all those controls go out the window when working outside. Along with the impossibility of blackouts, particularly when performing before sunset, elements like wind, rain, and birdsong appear without warning.
Designer Steve Lucas has worked on numerous outdoor productions before (in addition to designing the Eddie Pavilion, where the show plays), so he’s well aware of both the challenges and the possibilities that come with performing al fresco.
“When we first got together to discuss the script there was an idea to make some of the props out of paper or cardboard,” Lucas said. “But I knew immediately we’d be chasing them all over the stage as soon as the wind picked up. Traditionally, you would lean on deception to pull off a lot of things in this kind of script. In this case, we knew it would all depend on the skill of the actors.”
Though Toronto audiences may be unfamiliar with the organization, they might have seen one of County Stage Company’s previous productions: 2022’s Dora Award-winning smash The Shape of Home, which premiered in Prince Edward County before hitting Crow’s Theatre last year. Now in its 17th season, the company has produced more than 100 shows, including scripts by top-notch talent like Daniel MacIvor, Michael Healy, and Ann-Marie MacDonald.
Featuring some of the province’s finest beaches, Prince Edward County has become one of the region’s top weekend getaway spots for city dwellers needing a break from the heat. Alongside its glorious nature, it’s gradually becoming a culinary hotspot, with several big name Toronto chefs decamping there recently to launch new culinary ventures.
“It’s such a beautiful area of the province,” said Lucas. “The beaches are gorgeous. The nature is gorgeous. And along with all of that, you get a really rare opportunity to see this show in an outdoor setting. It’s definitely worth the trip.”
The 39 Steps runs at County Stage Co. through August 6, 2023. Tickets are available here.