The 39 Steps: a fast-paced Hitchcockian whodunit played perfectly for laughs


If you’re looking for 2 hours of non-stop hilarity and knee-slapping fun, you won’t want to miss the Centaur’s production of the Alfred Hitchcock-inspired The 39 Steps.

The farce is (bear with me here… try to follow) based on the Alfred Hitchcock film adaptation of a John Buchanan novel that was eventually adapted again in 2005 by Patrick Barlow as a comedy. So, while it’s based on the Hitchcock classic whodunit of murder, mayhem, and spies, the storyline in the play adaptation is mainly played for laughs. And the laughs come quickly and often in this latest Centaur production, directed by the company’s new Artistic and Executive Director, Eda Holmes.

The premise is simple enough. Richard Hannay (played with impeccable comedic timing and abundant energy by the delightful Andrew Shaver) is suddenly accosted by Anabella Schmidt, a mysterious woman with a dangerous secret. Hours later, she ends up dead and he’s now a fugitive, desperately trying to solve the mystery of her murder and save himself in the process.

The murdered female femme fatale is brilliantly played by Amelia Sargisson, who later reappears as other women and love interests Hanney encounters along the way. To attempt to adequately describe Sargisson’s physical comedy is to do her a disservice. Throughout the play, she wills her body to move in ways I’m not sure one can do without experiencing some measure of pain. She’s relentless in her pursuit of laughs and she’s blessed with one of the best screaming voices I’ve ever heard in theatre. A pure delight from beginning to end!

Throw in the affable duo of Lucinda Davis and Trent Pardy who play an almost never-ending rotating list of characters (from heroes, to villains, and everything in between), and sometimes more than one character at once, and who are required to change costumes at lightning speed to achieve that, and you have the makings of a fast-paced comedy fest. After having seen Davis in some serious theatre productions in the past, it’s nice to see her let her hand down and have so much fun here. All in all, a cast of four play over 100 characters in 120 minutes and their tongue-in-cheek performances are clearly as entertaining to them as they are to us. It’s a dizzying pace and they all live up to the task with versatility and great skill.

The script is full of allusions to (and puns on the titles of) other Alfred Hitchcock films, including Strangers on a Train, Rear Window, Psycho, Vertigo and North by Northwest. Hitchcock fans will certainly enjoy the secret references, but even if you’ve never seen a single Hitchcock film noir, don’t despair; it’s not required to enjoy the play.

The high-energy show relies on Holmes’ experienced and nuanced directing that uses both the actors’ physical comedic skills and the stage props for maximum effect. Nothing is left to chance and nothing on stage isn’t at one point used to further along a scene, help us better imagine a movie moment, or simply for comedy fodder. The actors, to their credit, never run out of steam and continue along this mayhem and madness in fine frenetic form. At the end of the day, this witty production is a play within a play because everyone’s in on the joke, which makes it so endearing and entertaining to the audience.

Special shout-out to Toronto-based set and costume designer Michael Gianfresco who created an old, abandoned Vaudeville-style theatre for the production. Not only is it gorgeous to look at, but it’s also highly functional, as are the costumes that had to be put on and taken off in record speed.

What I adored most about The 39 Steps is that it’s ultimately an ode to silliness. Theatre sometimes gets the unfair rap that it’s too highbrow, too serious, too complicated, and too severe. We often forget that at its very core it’s pure entertainment, a rush of emotions, and that adrenaline you can only get sitting in front of real actors performing on a real stage. There’s something truly magical about the experience that can’t be replicated elsewhere, and when artistic talent is allowed to express the pure joy of human silliness and comedy for no other reason than to elicit laughs, there is nothing more life-affirming.

I left the theatre energized, giddy, and with my abs aching, but also with deep respect for what it takes to produce such high-quality performances. The play may be an entertaining romp, but a lot of hard work went into making us howl with laughter. I don’t, for a second, underestimate that and continue to be grateful to the magic theatre brings to my life.

The Centaur’s The 39 Steps runs until December 10, 2017. For information and/or tickets, go here. Catch it while you can.