Newly minted Centaur Theatre artistic director Eda Holmes helms a classic caper with Centaur Theatre Company’s restaging of The 39 Steps. I was fortunate enough to catch their buzzing opening night on November 16th, while the show runs until December 10th.
Based on a novel by John Buchan, The 39 Steps was adapted into a film by Alfred Hitchcock during his early years in Hollywood. The play, adapted by Patrick Barlow, works in numerous Hitchcockian motifs and in-jokes for the audience, creating a throughline from its historical beginnings and setting to the more contemporary meta-humour and performances it simultaneously boasts.
The story follows one Richard Hannay, wanted for a murder he didn’t commit. That’s all one need know, plot-wise, since the draw of the show is not its twists and turns but the way they’re concocted by this savvy theatrical team.
Set and costume designer Michael Gianfrancesco frames the stage in a dilapidated vaudeville house, sparse enough to allow the actors to utilize the countless moving props, costumes, and set pieces with ease. The show is incredibly slick in its execution, all of the fast-moving parts seamlessly integrated through Gianfrancesco’s utilitarian design. Lighting designer Andrea Lundy and sound designer Keith Thomas have a similarly fizzy drink to keep tabs on which they handle masterfully with breadth-of-a-second lighting and sound cues. What one comes to recognize in this production is a razor-sharp team of individuals forming an incredibly tight unit of efficiency and showmanship.
Two important parts of this unit were filled by fight choreographer Anita Nittoly and dialect coach Rea Nolan. I stopped keeping count of how many characters were played by the four actors, but each one was vocally diverse from their peers, impressive not only for the number of dialects on hand, but the speed at which they are switched. Meanwhile, the production is able to maintain its whip-like pace due to the hilarious and tight fight choreography – again, significant gears in the larger mechanism required to keep the show churning.
I feel fortunate to not have to pick favourites among the four co-leads of this production, mostly because I couldn’t if I tried. Propelling the narrative is Andrew Shaver as Richard Hannay, the fairly hapless straight man to the clownish antics of the other players. But make no mistake, Shaver invests Hannay with a concentrated playfulness that makes him engaging from start to finish. And oh, that giggle. Amelia Sargisson plays opposite Shaver in the countless femme fatale roles the play exhibits, provoking and prodding him into action with her energy and dynamism. If her various roles don’t ask for much more than “be sexy but also funny”, Sargisson rises above the material by investing the roles with personality and just the right amount of campiness. And oh, that post-scream smile.
Matching Shaver and Sargisson’s playfulness are the two clowns, Lucinda Davis and Trent Pardy, providing a perfect blend of antagonism and buffoonery. Davis shines in her commitment and specificity of character, forcing an eager anticipation to brew in my gut whenever she took the stage. Her cohort, Pardy, proved an equally capable chameleon through his endless quick-changes and reversals. Here is a performer who knows how to work with an audience. This capable clowny duo anchored the show through their dedication and skill, preventing it from running off the rails and becoming a hodge-podge of “bits” for the sake of laughs.
If one questions the relevance of staging such an antiquated production in our current climate, these worries are mostly quelled by the sheer showmanship on display. Yes, some of the jokes are tired (a man in drag sneaks a kiss from the unwitting straight man!), and a few of the tropes overused, but the breathless pace at which these zing by renders such concerns fairly moot. There is so much skill being thrown around the stage that your eyes barely have time to register before they’re moving on to the next bit. For every joke that made me groan, there were five more that had me giggling like Richard Hannay.
No, this capital-S show doesn’t break boundaries or present anything new, but it is an engaging and energized reworking of an old classic that will leave you breathless from laughter and jealous of the apparent fun the actors must be having on stage.
Review by Montreal Theatre Hub Contributor Andrew Sawyer
The Centaur Theatre Company presents The 39 Steps
When: November 14 to December 10, 2017
Where: 453 St. François-Xavier, Montreal H2Y 2T1
Admission: $28 – $51.75
Box Office: 514-288-3161 | www.centaurtheatre.com