Review- The 39 Steps- Aurora Theatre


By Douglas Berman





Dear Readers,

After a semi-lengthy hiatus, I am delighted to return to the digital pages of HKELD to review what can only be adequately described as a genre-bending comedic reworking of the famous Hitchcock suspense thriller, The 39 Steps.



I must confess I was pretty smitten by this play, and by the production, which is directed with brilliant aplomb by Hong Kong’s own maven, Nicole Garbellini. The genius of Garbellini’s directorship is her ability to manage the action, particularly where a large dollop of madcap energy is required. When done right, it makes for a heady experience, much like traveling on a roller coaster or jet plane– which may explain my surprise at finding how quickly the first act seemed to pass. Though an hour passed before the intermission, I felt as if I had just sat down.



The 39 Steps, as all cinephiles know, was written by John Buchan and then later adapted by the great, inimitable, master of suspense, Sir Alfred Hitchcock into the 1935 film. And much can be – and has been -- said about the late master’s signature genius in generating mood and suspense through canny timing.



This production of The 39 Steps, however, is based on a readaptation by the English playwright and actor, Patrick Barlow, who has transformed the work of suspense into a work of humour. That is important to note, as anyone entering the theatre expecting a lugubrious, dismal Scotch setting with nary a laugh in between, will be pleasantly disappointed.



And the work is funny – very funny at times, mainly due to the strength of the actors and their willingness to take things to the limit. This is an ensemble cast where all four of the actors are talented and display comedic and dramatic range – even flair – in their respective roles. So it behoves me to say a word (or more) about each:



Jim Brockman, is extremely convincing as the main character, Richard Hannay. Brockman is a real find with solid control of the material and impressive dramatic range. His ability to shift from a tone of cheerful acquiescence to fear and anxiety without missing a beat was wonderful. He is believable as hell, I might say, if I were trying to appropriate some of the robust language of the play – and languages and dialects are also made a point, as we journey up from the “civilized” stretch of London to the cold highlands of the Scots.



Brockman is also a talented contortionist – not sure how else to describe his ability to maneuver his way out of difficulties, at one point while in handcuffs, and to sleep in the most uncomfortable postures imaginable. Whether running in place or clambering over chair furniture to escape the law, the effect created is of one bent on exiting his trousers.



The other actors in the ensemble perform admirably as well. I particularly enjoyed Alex Sommerville who, aside from affecting various English dialects, manages his German, Italian, and Scots, quite well. Sommerville is a versatile performer whose posture ranges from stiff-stern upright – when playing the uptight bobby – to a slouched, simian position, reminiscent of the hunchback Igor, in the movie, Young Frankenstein. He also is the most energetic contortionist of faces, capable of offering scowls, grimaces, and moronic grins, depending on the moment.



Jennie Davis and Marc Ngan have smaller roles in the action, but in their time on stage, they manage to shine. Ms Davis has twin roles as, first, the lovely but doomed, Ms. Annabella Smith, and then as the imperious, but ultimately romantically-receptive, Pamela. Mr Ngan has a series of different roles, taking full advantage of his comic timing and ability to change gears quickly.



Finally, some small notice should be given to Ms Lo, who is not an actor in the play, but helps manage the backstage machinery. In a play where scene changes are constant, and where the actors literally interact with the scenery, having an able stage hand like Ms Lo is absolutely indispensable.



The smallness of the theatre and the lack of a stage – in fact, many viewers are seated only several feet from the action. While this makes it easier to be heard, it also puts unique demands on the actors not to over-act or become distracted by the presence of the audience. As for the clarify of the performance, I was impressed that the actors all voiced their lines very clearly with clear effect.



Finally, there is Ms. Garbellini who seems very well-equipped to handle an arduous series of set and clothing changes with minimal issues. Without giving too much away, her stagecraft relies on a combination of music, off-stage sounds – e.g. trains, thunderclaps, signs, and various other effects. I particularly enjoyed the period music, which wafted in and out both during the play and during the intermission. It created the place and timing wonderfully.



Side note: one of these effect – I will not say which one – seemed to have been taken directly from another Mel Brooks’ classic film, High Anxiety – if so, it would not be surprising, given that movie parodies several Hitchcock films.



Favorite scene: I particularly liked the last bit right before the intermission, where the action seems to crescendo into total mayhem.

One quibble: I felt the scene on the train platform at the beginning of the play could have been slightly abbreviated. While rambunctious and amusing at first, the extended sequence of exchanging hats did become a bit tiresome.


But, all in all, there is nothing that beats the theatre for sociable entertainment. And this one was the right show for the right time. I  heartily endorse it.



Rate This Show: 1 2 3 4 5 Audience Rating: 3.1


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