“The 39 Steps is a brilliant and wacky take on an Alfred Hitchcock film that goes from romantic, suspense thriller to farce,” says Vivien Douglas.
“When I saw the play in London a couple of years ago I laughed my head off the whole way through.”
From Oct. 4 to 7 and 10 to 13, Courtenay Little Theatre will present The 39 Steps at the Sid Williams Theatre with Douglas filling the role of director.
All performances are at 7:30 p.m. except for a 2 p.m. matinee on Oct. 7 at 2 p.m. and the Gala Opening on Oct. 5 when the public is invited to join local dignitaries for the free opening reception at 7 p.m. followed by show time at 8 p.m.
Until Oct. 31, theatre lovers can purchase a discounted season pass to three Courtenay Little Theatre productions: The 39 Steps in October, The Magic Tinderbox (Christmas panto) and The Winslow Boy, a serious drama for CLT’s spring 2013 production, which will also be their entry in the North Island Zone Festival.
Based on the 1935 Hitchcock film, The 39 Steps combines the suspense of a spy thriller with the comedic action of a Monty Python movie.
“The movie has elaborate set pieces and a cast of 50; in the play everything is reduced down to four actors and a steamer trunk,” says Douglas. “Maria Aitken, the first director of the play, and the improvisation of her cast, made this play what it is. I’ve seen it twice now and keep asking myself ‘How on earth did they come up with something so funny?’ ”
And, because the show has been so popular, five years and running in London’s West End and more than three years on Broadway — the release of performance rights to amateur groups was slow in coming.
CLT is one of the first community theatre groups in North America to perform the award-winning production.
The plot involves a man with a boring life, a lovely woman with a thick accent, a murder, missing fingers, a plane crash and a nationwide manhunt. Four seasoned actors, Nika Berry, Steve Gordon, Millie Miller and Ross Stephanson, portray the many characters throughout in a masterpiece of timing and stagecraft.
“Between them, Steve and Ross play 32 characters,” says Douglas. “We have a fantastic backstage crew and with all the characters, accents and changes of costumes we need every one of them. There are only four people on stage but there is a huge support team so it is a real team effort.”
The biggest challenge is timing. In addition to seeing the play live, Douglas has spent hours watching various YouTube clips of the production.
“Like all comedy, The 39 Steps is quite tricky to perform,” she says. “You have to take it apart to see how best to work it. So for a period it becomes quite unfunny as you’re polishing the timing and positioning. A pause of only five seconds can deflate a punchline.”
“Sometimes you wonder why you ever thought the story was funny,” she adds. “But then a member of the crew will come in that hasn’t seen it for a while and burst out laughing and you know you’re on the right track.
“Everyone has to work very hard to make it all seem effortless. Comedy is much harder to pull off than tragedy. ”
According to producer Val Macdonald, several Comox Valley residents who saw the play in Chemainus last year have already bought tickets for the Courtenay production because it was so funny.
“The 39 Steps is billed as a show that appeals to everyone between nine and 90,” says Douglas. “Teens will especially enjoy the Monty Python feel of the production. There are also some other fun things the audience can watch for such as sly references to other Hitchcock movies.”
For more information about tickets for The 39 Steps or CLT’s discounted season pass, visit www.sidwilliamstheatre.com or contact the box office by phone (250-338-2430) or in person.
Paula Wild is a published author and regular contributor to the Comox Valley Record’s arts and entertainment section.