Four actors, over 100 roles in The 39 Steps at the Drama Centre Black Box

Published on 24 November 2023
By Team Catch

Mention Alfred Hitchcock and one thinks of a master of suspense and mystery. Chaos and hilarity? Not so much. 

But that is exactly what English playwright Patrick Barlow does in his Olivier Award-winning play The 39 Steps, inspired by a 1935 Hitchcock film of the same name. Where the late filmmaker is serious, Barlow is decidedly not. It is a parody after all. 

The latest production of The 39 Steps by Singapore’s oldest not-for-profit theatre company The Stage Club retains the playful spirit of pastiche that Barlow was gunning for. And as Barlow had intended, a grand total of four actors play about a hundred different roles in the show. The outcome? A fast-paced theatrical storm that is, as The New York Times called it, “absurdly enjoyable” in all its wackiness.

Richard John Webster as Richard Hannay in his ‘wanted’ pose for the newspaper

Richard Hannay finds himself in a sticky situation and must unravel a great secret before it’s too late

Killer comedy

The plot is deliberately simple. A French spy Annabelle Schmidt reveals to protagonist Richard Hannay (the only actor who plays one role throughout the show) that an important secret is in danger of being taken out of the country by the insidious spy organisation The 39 Steps. After a dramatic turn of events, the responsibility to save the country falls on Hannay’s shoulders.

Yet the plot is not so much the focus of the play as the experience of theatre itself. At the start of the play, Hannay desires "something mindless and trivial, something utterly pointless". He finds his answer by going to the theatre.

In the same way, The 39 Steps refuses to take itself too seriously, turning Hitchcock’s original spy thriller film into a comedy of errors in its stage rendition. Well-timed classical music adds a layer of humour to scenes. Flight of the Bumblebee plays during dramatic chase scenes; the expressive clarinet solo that opens George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue sneaks in during every mildly romantic interaction; and the classic “dun dun duuun” interrupts characters every time they say the phrase “The 39 Steps”. 

Physical comedy is a large part of the fun too. Characters shift identities and change costumes within a matter of seconds in multiple scenes, making a show of rolling across the stage to inhabit their new roles. Another recurring gag sees characters pulling their head through an empty frame and stepping out of it to mimic climbing out of a window. 

Small set, major drama

Emma and Stephanie playing the roles of pilots chasing Richard Hannay using a prop yoke

Emma and Stephanie do a remarkable job engaging the audience through their seamless switching of roles and expressive exchanges

Perhaps what is most impressive about the play is that it demonstrates how much you can do with very little. Large, swanky sets do not a high-quality production make. 

It is not just the fact that a cast of four is enough to portray over a hundred roles—the props on stage are equally simple. Storage boxes can transform from simple seats in one scene to a car in the next, just by sticking two torchlights between the lid and body to mimic headlights. Of course, the over-the-top acting—replete with exaggerated European accents and gestures—seals the deal. 

In Hannay’s words, the play is indeed mindless, trivial, and pointless. And that’s precisely the point. 

Step into the fun zone and catch The 39 Steps from 16 to 26 November 2023 at the Drama Centre Black Box. Tickets range from $30 to $60 and Catch members can enjoy 10% off when they quote a valid password upon purchase. 

All images are credited to DW Photography


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