Review: ALFRED HITCHCOCK'S THE 39 STEPS at Great Lakes Theater

THE 39 STEPS is farce light at Great Lakes Theater

By: May. 01, 2022

Review: ALFRED HITCHCOCK'S THE 39 STEPS at Great Lakes Theater Alfred Hitchcock's THE 39 STEPS, now in production at Great Lakes Theater is a farce. Farce theatre is a script that is highly exaggerated, ridiculous, and absurd. It contains situations that are improbable, often centering on stereotyped characters. The writing method is often referred to as producing "off the wall scripts." Onstage there is bedlam, slapstick and overdone acting.


Farce is very difficult to stage and perform. Every action has to be overdone, but be funny because of its relationship to the script, not overdone just to get laughs. The play must be extremely fast paced, with the schticks, gimmicks and absurdity, inciting wonder of how the ridiculous is done.

The British and, to some extent, the French and Canadians seem to be the masters of farce, Americans, not quite so much. I personally found that seeing NOISES OFF in London, with a Brit cast, was a wild ride, while seeing the same play on Broadway, with an American cast was a pleasant experience. The former had a five-year run, the latter, a short stint.

The play, THE 39 STEPS, was adapted from a 1915 book and the 1935 film by Alfred Hitchcock. Both the book and the film were thrillers. The original concept and production of a four-actor farce was conceived by Simon Corble and Nobby Dimon. Patrick Barlow rewrote the material into its current format in 2005.

With only four actors portraying 100 or more roles as heroes, villains, men, women, children and even inanimate objects, requires lightning-fast changes of set pieces, costumes, wigs and personas.

The film's serious spy story is now played mainly for laughs. The script is full of allusions to puns on the titles of Alfred Hitchcock films, including STRANGERS ON A TRAIN, REAR WINDOW, PSYCHO, VERTIGO and NORTH BY NORTHWEST that come and go so quickly that only a master of Hitchcock trivia will get them all.

The style of the play is based on Patrick Barlow's experience with Monty Python and other British farcists.

In summary, the pencil thin plot centers on Richard Hannay, a Londoner who is leading a boring affluent life. While attending the theater, he meets a woman with a thick accent. She says she is a spy. While in hiding at his house, she is murdered. Richard goes on the run to avoid being caught by the police who think, "blimey, he did her in." Soon, (aghast!) not only the police, but a foreign organization called "The 39 Steps" is hot on the man's tail. In a nationwide manhunt, including his riding trains and cars, and falling in love with a woman with whom he is handcuffed, the story climaxes in a death-defying finale. (Told you the plot is pencil thin!)

GLT newcomer, tall and handsome Anthony Michael Martinez portrays Richard Hannay, the affluent Brit, sensual Maggie Kettering is Clown 1, pert Betsy Mugavero is the woman with the accent who also portrays numerous other roles, and multi-talented Joe Wegner is Clown 2.

These are all classically trained American actors whose experiences work well for performing the traditional Great Lakes show. Not as much so for THE 39 STEPS. They have probably had little experience in portraying farce, which requires a special skill set.

Courtney O'Neill's scenic design works well for the necessary quick changes, as do Esther M. Haberlen's costumes. As the actors get more used to working with the set pieces and adornments, the somewhat languid pace of show should improve.

Capsule judgment: Having seen superb productions of THE 39 STEPS in London and Canada, the level was high for my attending the show at GLT. Unfortunately, though the local staging is adequate, it was not all that the staging of the clever script can be. The pacing was much too slow and the absurdity too controlled. Audiences not aware of what could be may be delighted by the Jaclyn Miller directed show. Those in the know will probably be disappointed.

THE 39 STEPS continues at the Hanna Theatre through May 22, 2022. For tickets call 216-241-6000 or go to