A femme fatale with a gun at the community theatre leads to murder, a manhunt on the Scottish moors, and an espionage plot for one gadabout with dark, wavy hair, piercing blue eyes, and a very attractive pencil moustache. As often happens at the community theatre.
This is the setup for The 39 Steps, Patrick Barlow’s comedic adaptation of the not-so-comedic John Buchan novel. After an eventful night attending his local theatre for some light entertainment, Richard Hannay (Brandon McGibbon) agrees to help the mysterious Annabella Schmidt (Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster) before realizing a peculiar character has framed him for her murder. With precious few clues, he’s sent on the run to Scotland to find answers and clear his name, only to encounter a bevy of absurd and sometimes nefarious characters played by Helen Belay and Courtenay Stevens in County Stage Company’s production.
The source material isn’t without its problems. Buchan (1875-1940), the fifteenth Governor General of Canada, historian, prolific author, colonialist, racist, and antisemite, inspired the man-on-the-run genre with this beloved novel and subsequent sequels. Numerous adaptations have been made for TV, radio, and film, including one by Alfred Hitchcock, but none have been more silly fun than Barlow’s side-splitting spoof of the genre. This is a wonderful celebration of a well-loved archetype without romanticizing the creator; it’s no wonder the play ran in London for over a decade and was successful on Broadway.
This production of The 39 Steps is a wonderful diversion for a summer evening in Prince Edward County. It’s a group of skilled actors being incredibly silly together, a bit of escapist fun that was welcome after a three-hour run from the city (Toronto traffic on a Friday, amirite?). This esteemed and skilled ensemble chews scenery and handles all the fast-paced clowning, buffoonery, and screwball humour with ease. Their physical theatre skills are top-notch, giving the impression they are more cartoon than human in an absurd, Monty Python-esque world.
The story of the dangerous foreigner scheming against the benevolent Empire is a bit of a tired old trope, and in today’s climate, even in jest, a bit of a frightening one. But here, the madcap, cartoonish world, along with a multicultural and multi-ethnic, cast help turn the fear of the mysterious other into as much of a joke as the rest of it — it’s a bit of sunlight to clear out the mildew.
Monica Dottor’s direction, Steve Lucas’ set design, as well as playful and easily changeable costumes by Lindsay Forde helps create a completely believable and largely imaginary space for the cast and audience to navigate. A rotating series of rooms suggests a mansion, stacked suitcases become trains and automobiles, and a wig and an overcoat create a whole new character. The quaint space of the Eddie Outdoor Pavilion also adds to the outdoor atmosphere of plane, train, and car chases ‘round lochs and over moors.
A reminder: as the show is outside, bring your bug spray, although the mosquitoes weren’t a problem until dusk, when they became plentiful. The audio is also occasionally a bit wonky, with winds blowing and the occasional dirt bike off in the distance. The sound design by Rebecca Everett is solid, but we are all mere mortals, subject to the whims of nature. The night I attended, the villain lost his not-as-attractive-as-Hannay’s pencil moustache partway through, possibly a casualty to the wind, or perhaps just a misstep of rapid costume changes. These little details add to the chance and charm of outdoor theatre.
Is The 39 Steps a show I would elect to see if it were playing in the city? To be honest, I’m not entirely sure I would. However, it’s a delight to leave the city for. And while I’m sure the play wasn’t created for outdoor theatre, I can’t imagine there being a better environment to produce it.
Do yourselves a favour. If you can, take the trip, pre-order a picnic lunch, and show up a little early to enjoy the food and the grounds before letting a cast of fantastic actors take you on an equally fantastic journey through some of the silliest places and situations. Enjoy a little escapist nonsense – goodness knows we can all use a good laugh these days.
The 39 Steps plays at County Stage Company until August 6. Tickets are available here.
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