With just four actors playing a titanic cast of 139 characters, The 39 Steps mixes classic film noir seamlessly with zany comedy and is based on the 1935 adventure film directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Opening in the Cremorne Theatre at QPAC, the story follows a member of the idle rich back from overseas, who tries to help a counterespionage agent. But, when the agent is killed the man stands accused and must go on the run to both save himself and try and stop a spy ring who is on a mission to steal top secret information.
In this production, Jon Halpin directs an all-Queensland cast of four including; Hugh Parker (Scenes from a Marriage, Noises Off!), Liz Buchanan (Much Ado About Nothing & Gimm Tales), Leon Cain (I Love You Bro, Orphans & An Oak Tree) and Bryan Probets (Pirates of the Caribbean & The Great Gatsby).
Halpin said he feels blessed to be able to revisit Patrick Barlow’s work (creator of the original stage adaptation in London 2005). “This is my fourth outing as director on a Patrick Barlow play, two different productions of The Messiah (in 2002 and then 2006) and two productions of The 39 Steps, first for State Theatre Company of South Australia in 2016 and now this production. I must say, I feel very blessed to be able to revisit his work and this play. Patrick has an uncanny knack for putting madcap, slapstick and almost silly comedy up on stage, but always with such integrity and respect for the source material. In The Messiah, it’s the nativity and in this play it is of course Hitchcock’s 1935 seminal classic. Although the action may be ridiculous and unhinged, at all times the story on Richard Hannay’s dangerous journey to learn the meaning of The 39 Steps is the beating heart of the play.”
“We have approached this production from the position that the movie, a film that is very much the progenitor of many action films we know today, is impossible to stage. It is such an iconic piece of cinema and so utterly filmic, that to attempt to stage it is sheer folly. But stage it we shall. And we shall deliberately fail and triumph in equal and hilarious measures.”
On stage, Hugh Parker plays the hero Richard Hannay. Liz Buchanan plays the three women with whom he has romantic entanglements with, and Leon Cain and Bryan Probets play every other character in the show: heroes, villains, men, women, children and even the occasional inanimate object.
This often requires lightning fast quick-changes and occasionally for them to play multiple characters at once. Thus, the film’s serious spy story is played mainly for laughs, and the script is full of allusions to (and puns on the titles of) other Alfred Hitchcock films, including Strangers on a Train, Rear Window, Psycho, Vertigo and North by Northwest.
“The thought of working with Hugh, Liz, Bryan and Leon – pulling apart the film scene by scene, inventing the cleverest ways to put this work before an audience – is an utter joy. To have the support and ingenuity of Ailsa Paterson, David Murray and Stuart Day offering creative and hilarious solutions to unstageable conundrums has likewise been a delight,” Halpin said.
Leading star, Hugh Parker said The 39 Steps was the play that brought him back to theatre.
“The first time I saw what’s referred to as the West End version of it, a very good friend of mine played Hannay, so I got so see him in the Oxford Playhouse in England. I was so proud and so jealous.”
After a year-long tour with the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1996, Parker decided to focus on television. It wasn’t until 2006 that he decided to return to theatre and perform in Patrick Barlow’s stage adaptation of The 39 Steps in St Andrews, Scotland.
“I think having an audience association with it myself in 1993-1994 and loving how it was so charming and seeing a good mate doing it, it suddenly dawned on me that I could do this too,” Parker said.
Originally Parker wasn’t seen for Hannay, “I was seen for one of the clowns and when they met me they said would you mind reading for Hannay as well.”
Hugh Parker has been a star of Queensland Theatre now for nearly 10 years and this year’s production of The 39 Steps is set to be a popular choice for many theatre goers.
The 39 Steps
24 February to 24 March
Cremorne Theatre, QPAC