Review: The 39 Steps (East Side Players)

Minimal cast and props deliver dynamic theatre in The 39 Steps playing at the Papermill Playhouse in Toronto

The 39 Steps was a novel, then a Hitchcock thriller, and is now — nearly a century after it appeared — presented in Real-Life-O-Vision at the Papermill Playhouse. The modern staging was pioneered on a barnstorming tour of British town halls and corn exchanges: four actors play all the roles, using only a few crates, hats, set pieces and pairs of stockings between them.

This kooky melodrama is very much set in a specific time and place: England, during the interwar years, when mentalists still played the music halls and a weekend in Scotland was an exotic vacation. As the characters travel up and down the country hunting the Great MacGuffin, they encounter great complications and smaller dramas: sheep on the road, romantic entangelements, a Scottish pipe band, and fear and danger around every corner. Will our hero succeed?

Of course he will. It’s an interwar melodrama; it wouldn’t do to have a sad ending. So let’s stop talking about the plot and move onto the meat.

Stephen Carrette plays Richard Hannay through a flawless RAF mustache. Carrette’s accent work is much better than we’ve any right to expect at this level of theatre, and his eyes have a marvellous longing, off-in-the-distance quality which suits the perpetually out-of-place Hannay. His sidekick is Kristie Paille, playing all three of the female leads, doing her best work as Annabelle and Margaret. Paille’s greatest strength is her ability to shove a spine into characters who would otherwise be mere window-dressing: all three are presented as robust partners, rather than human plot points. The other two actors, Jacob Hogan and Daryn DeWalt, play everyone else: vaudevillians, spies, fellow-travellers and — memorably — the entire staff of a very specific type of Scottish hotel.

This show is meant to have a lickety-split rat-a-tat-tat pace, and as my guest told me afterwards, this is something the company often struggled with. It felt like the show could have been 20 minutes shorter, without touching the script: fewer beats, fewer pauses, snappier dialogue and less mugging. I also found myself wondering whether this was the right venue for this production: on several occasions the noise of re-arranging the set drowned out the lines, and once or twice actors disappeared backstage for prolonged periods in order to re-enter with a prop that evidently couldn’t be stored in the teeny-tiny wings of the Papermill Theatre.

The design work, however, is most impressive, especially the costuming. (Jacob Hogan, in turban and dressing-gown, plays a marvellous professor’s wife.) Michael Harvey’s utilitarian set pieces work well enough, and Mary Jane Boon’s moody, dim lighting conjures up the proper universe of railway carriages, tiny bedsit apartment, midnight chases and grimy alleyways.

The action does pick up in the second half — but this is a script-level problem, mostly down to the first bit being utterly loaded down with exposition and distractions. In particular, a lengthy sequence in a Scottish cottage is irrelevant to the plot and could have been cut entirely, and it’s obvious that the cast’s hearts simply aren’t in the muddled prologue — an inauspicious way to start a show! This isn’t East Side Players’ fault (they didn’t write the script), but it is a problem.

There are, however, some diamonds in the rough — a scene with a sandwich and a recurring aeroplane motif are especially memorable — and so long as you’re prepared to take the good with the bad, it’s a pleasant enough evening at the theatre.

Details

  • The 39 Steps plays through November 8th at the Papermill Theatre in Todmorden Mills. (67 Pottery Road)
  • Showtimes vary, see website for details.
  • Tickets are $22.00, $15.00 for students.
  • Tickets can be bought online, by telephone (416 425 0917), or in-person from the venue. Venue sales are cash-only.
  • Be aware that this venue is difficult to access on foot and by public transport: in particular, the nearest bus stop is up a very steep hill.

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