The Distillery District was buzzing Wednesday night for the summer premiere of Soulpepper’s The 39 Steps. Running until Aug. 27, this quick-witted parody, adapted for the stage by Patrick Barlow, is based off the novel by John Buchan and the classic spy thriller directed by Alfred Hitchcock. This production brilliantly flips the spy genre on its head by taking a farcical look into the popularity of 1930s film noir and thrillers.
Acted by an engaging and talented cast, this creative romp follows Richard Hannay (Kawa Ada) who is accused of a crime he did not commit. We hear about how Hannay avoided the authorities and attempted to uncover a criminal organization called “The 39 Steps” that has been setting him up. Mystery, comical mayhem, and countless references to Pokémon Go and to the Master of Suspense himself gives the 1930s thriller a fresh comical spin.
The 39 Steps doesn’t take itself too seriously (and neither should you), as the production pokes fun at itself and at the archetype of the murder mystery through plot and design elements. The play is even narrated through a Hitchcockesque voiceover, which makes it all the more apparent that Barlow has literally thought of every hilarious detail to portray the stereotypical aspects of the genre.
Ravi Jain’s direction allows the audience to use their imagination throughout. Jain depicts certain scenes in a clever way using a toy train set to indicate a scene change and shadow puppetry for a physical chase sequence over the mountains. It is smart, witty, and genre-redefining, never allowing the slapstick to grow old. Jain is aware of what is funny to an audience and drills it in as far as it can go, seen especially with Anand Rajaram’s five-minute death scene.
Ken MacKenzie’s vaudeville set is kept bare and accessible for constant set changes while Jackie Chau’s costumes reflect the grey and dark tones of the 1930s.
What is surprisingly effective, is how André du Toit’s lighting and Verne Good’s sound merge to express not only the time period, but also the stylistic elements of the thriller genre. Misty smog hangs over the action on stage and occasional dramatic spotlights are added to highlight the intensity of Hannay’s run from authorities. Good’s sound reflects that of classic suspense film soundtracks, even making a slight reference to the screeching violins of Hitchcock’s Psycho.
The best, however, is when these two design elements fuse for comic effect. As Hannay runs from the police, a flickering spotlight combined with a whimsical piano score looks like something out of a silent film, highlighting the hilarity of watching the two unintelligent police officers struggling to capture him.
What carries this entire production is a brilliant cast of actors. Their delivery, stage presence and constant nudges to the audience allows us to fully participate along with them. Ada plays up the dashingly handsome Richard Hannay with equal charm and awkwardness. Raquel Duffy switches between playing the femme fatale, wife and girl-next-door with ease and humour.
While everyone in this cast stands out, major kudos must be given to Anand Rajaram and Andrew Shaver who played 150+ characters with such brilliance and impeccable timing. It is impressive to see these two change into several characters at once, as the audience erupts into incredible feats of laughter. There is never a dull moment and it only gets better when the production draws to a hilarious conclusion as they pose as Hannay’s newborn babies.
The 39 Steps is playing at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts until Aug. 27. For more information, visit soulpepper.ca.