by John Lombard
State Theatre Company of South Australia
Canberra Theatre, 29 October (on until 2 November)
Silly, spooky and slick, The 39 Steps is watching someone sprint in terror only to slip on a banana peel.
Playwright Richard Barlow adapts Hitchcock’s spy thriller film for the stage by embracing ramshackle minimalism. Four actors play more than a hundred characters, and the bric-a-brac set is like a cluttered junk warehouse.
Ageing bachelor Richard Hannay (Nathan Page) is wrongly accused of murder and must flee both the police and the true killers.
Hannay is the centre of a cosmic practical joke, and even the medium of theatre conspires against him: it’s hard to escape out a window when that part of the set is wheeled on late, or get in a car when there’s no car around.
But while this is superficially a terrific absurdist comedy, it has a thriller’s dread that transcends parody, and the laughs alternate with chills.
Nathan Page plays it straight, an everyman clinging to the eye of the storm. Page also unfurls Hannay’s arc as a weary and lonely everyman finding life and love through danger.
Page is backed by Anna Steen as frosty love interest Pamela. Steen gives a nimble and witty performance, and her chemistry with Page is delightful, especially in the intimate but comic stockings and stile scenes.
Charles Mayer and Tim Overton are the Others, the demons that populate Hannay’s nightmare, from police to spies to boorish salesmen. Entrancing rapid character switches display the pair’s virtuoso clowning, and the greatest threat of their anarchic antics is not to Hannay’s life, but to the actor’s dignity.
Only by abandoning common sense is this stolid ordinary man able to survive the extraordinary. Hannay also opens his heart to love, and his tender middle-age romance is a garden of comfort in this surreal grand guignol.
With immaculate polish and timing, The 39 Steps is a comedy of bite and artistry.
Tickets and details at canberratheatrecentre.com.au