In 1915, John Buchan published what’s often called the first spy thriller, The 39 Steps. In 1935, he must have been taken aback by all of the changes when Alfred Hitchcock turned it into a film (although Buchan may have had other things on his mind that year, like being appointed Governor General of Canada).
I have to wonder what Buchan would have thought of the stage production of The 39 Steps, now a comedy thriller playing at the Sudbury Theatre Centre. The audience at the preview performance I saw thought it was a riotous good time.
The play is a send-up of the Hitchcock film, not the novel, following the story of poor, bored Richard Hannay, who goes to the theatre for diversion one night and ends up entangled in a spy plot.
A woman is murdered in his apartment and Hannay is forced to flee, blamed for the crime. The woman’s final words lead him to Scotland, where he tries to keep a foreign spy from leaving the country with a vital national defence secret, all while barely escaping the clutches of the law himself.
He encounters scheming villains, mysterious women, country bumpkins, and all manner of other characters. There are desperate chases on trains and across foggy Scottish moors, attacks by airplane and car—lots of action and spectacle.
All on a Sudbury theatre budget and with a cast of only four actors, you ask? Well, when you go to see The 39 Steps, bring a lot of imagination. But that’s a big part of the fun.
On the face of it, Stephen Sparks, playing Richard Hannay with his dashing 1930s-style good looks, might be considered the star of the show. And Jacklyn Francis is his leading lady — or, more accurately, three of them. But Sheldon Davis and Robert Clarke steal the show as they portray all of the other characters, from bumbling policemen, to bagpipers, opera singers, canny Scottish landladies, and dozens more.
There’s slapstick and buffoonery aplenty as Davis and Clarke make hilarious costume changes on the fly, even while onstage, and the audience is left helplessly wondering how they’ll turn up next. The result is a real tribute to the whole cast’s skill, hard work, and relentless energy.
But the success of the show doesn’t belong only to the cast. Sharp direction by David Savoy and the ingenuity of the entire production team creates some delightful surprises and irresistible laughs. You just have to witness Hannay’s breathtaking escape atop a moving train, his breakneck bicycle getaway, and his pursuit by swooping biplanes with machine guns.
You have to see them because I refuse to describe them and spoil the fun.
This is the Sudbury Theatre Centre’s 40th anniversary year, and they’ve got it started with a winner.
The 39 Steps runs until Oct. 16 at the Sudbury Theatre Centre. Tickets are $34.50 adults, $29.25 seniors and $18.50 for students. Contact the STC Box Office at 705-674-8381 ext. 21.
Scott Overton is the morning show host on Rewind 103.9.