FIRST NIGHTER: THE 39 STEPS

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All you need to know about Little Theatre’s upcoming production!

About THE 39 STEPS By David Garnes

The original Alfred Hitchcock film, on which this spoof is based, was one of the movies made during Hitchcock’s early career in Britain, where he had a distinguished run as a film director. The Hitchcock filmography goes back to the days of silent films. His take on Jack the Ripper, called The Lodger, is probably the best of these early movies. Two talkies, The 39 Steps and The Lady Vanishes, were very successful on both sides of the Atlantic and made him famous in the United States. As war broke out in 1939, Hollywood beckoned, and over he came to America under a contract with David O. Selznick. Thus began his amazing career, which lasted for decades.
The 39 Steps has had several incarnations—originally as a book in 1915 written by one John Buchan, author of many novels and historical works and later a successful politician who became governor general of Canada. Twenty years later, in 1935, we have the Hitchcock film, which was enormously popular.
Then, in 1995, a stage adaptation—really a spoof—was written by Simon Corble and Nobby Dimon. It had modest success and toured around England in small venues. Little Theatre of Manchester’s 39 Steps follows the text of a re-write of the play by Patrick Barlow. Barlow, a writer and actor who has appeared in small roles in many films, including the fairly recent Notting Hill, Nanny McPhee, and Shakespeare in Love. But The 39 Steps made his fortune, playing for nine years in London and becoming the fifth longest-running play in the West End.
It’s had a couple of runs on Broadway, but it was first premiered in the United States by the Huntington Theatre Company in Boston, then in New York by the Roundabout Theatre. Its eventual run on Broadway played nearly 800 performances, and it was nominated for six Tony Awards, winning two for Best Lighting Design and Best Sound Design. (This is interesting in terms of indicating the importance of these two factors in the play, and we’ll mention more about that).
So, as to the play itself: The cast consists of four actors, one of whom plays one character only; a second takes on the role of three women; and two actors play a multitude of roles, including, at times, inanimate objects. They are called “clowns” in the credits. The play is fast-moving and funny, and once it begins the momentum never slows. Although its ultimate effect on the audience is far different from that of viewers of Hitchcock’s often scary, certainly nail-biting films, there is much that is typical of him in the play, for example:
  • The average, though sometimes world-weary and dapper man, so to speak, finding himself in increasingly extreme circumstances is a device used by Hitchcock many times
  • The Hitchcock blonde, typified in the original movie by the actress Madeleine Carroll and all the way up to the 50s by Grace Kelly and Tippi Hedren, Eva Marie Saint and Kim Novak in other films. Even Doris Day found herself in The Man Who Knew Too Much
  • The often bizarre and improbable locations where the action takes place
  • The Hitchcock wit, which is sometimes overlooked in his films because of the drama and suspense, but is certainly in abundance in the play
Some of the things to watch out for as you watch this production:
  • How props are dealt with
  • The “costume” changes that occur—shall we say, more than once. Notice what constitutes a costume
  • The dialogue, including some racy lines that are taken directly from the Hitchcock film. Hitchcock was sly in his filmmaking and this play takes full advantage of that aspect of his scripts. This play is much more like the script of the movie than the narrative of the original novel
  • The sound and light effects—very important
  • And, finally, for Hitchcock aficionados, the reference to other Hitchcock movies— see if you can spot some when you see the play (Hint: think Psycho, North by Northwest, Rear Window and Vertigo and a few others.)

A Note from the Director

“There is something more important than logic: imagination.” -Alfred Hitchcock
A man once wrote a book, another person adapted it into a movie, then another person adapted it into a play, which another person further adapted into this play. And here we have what is the hysterical chaos of The 39 Steps. As Hitchcock said, imagination is more important than logic, and we take great comfort in that.
Hitchcock has given us a great blueprint for this show. Not just with his film The 39 Steps, but with all of his films. I, the cast, and designers all took time to watch a selection of Hitchcock films in preparation for this project. We have countless homages and throwbacks to his films with our sets, sounds, costumes, props, and acting choices. I have immensely enjoyed my time on this project and I can’t remember another rehearsal process where I broke down laughing every day as with this one.
Sit back, relax, and discover the secret that is…The 39 Steps!
Shane William Kegler
Director
“The theater is an empty box and it is our task to fill it with fury”

GLOSSARY OF TERMS AND REFERENCES

  • compere: host, master of ceremonies of a stage revue or television program\
  • trilby: a hat of soft felt with an indented crown
  • shakedown: bed, as of straw or blankets spread on the floor; any makeshift bed do a bunk: to leave hastily, especially under suspicious circumstances; run away
  • lavatory: toilet facility
  • here’s a corker: someone or something that is astonishing or excellent
  • crofter: person who rents and works a small farm, especially in Scotland or Northern England
  • box bed: a bed completely enclosed to resemble a box; a bed that folds up
  • flailing stick: an implement consisting of a handle with a free swinging stick at the end; used in manual threshing
  • Procurer Fiscal: a public prosecutor in Scotland who investigates all sudden and suspicious deaths as well as presenting cases for the prosecution
  • Madame Tussauds: a wax museum in London (and now other major cities). A tourist attraction displaying waxworks of historical and royal figures, film stars, and sports stars.
  • The London Palladium: This theatre started as the Palladium, a premier venue for variety performances. Called the London Palladium now, it seats 2,286. It could be considered the most famous theatre in London and the United Kingdom, especially for musical variety shows.
  • The Forth Bridge: also known as the Forth Rail Bridge or the Forth Railway Bridge, spans the Firth of Forth in the east of Scotland. It acts as a major artery connecting the north-east and the south-east of the country. It is a cantilever bridge using cantilevers that project horizontally into space, supported only on one end.

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