Sunday, November 20, 2016

The 39 Steps as adapted by Patrick Barlow

Perhaps most people are familiar with this story because of the Alfred Hitchcock movie from 1935. A few, like my wife, read the original book by John Buchan (I haven’t, I’ll admit), which naturally contains additional scenes that didn’t make it into the story.

Hitchcock’s film is one of the best known from his earlier British period, and is a definite classic. (For what it’s worth, my favorite early Hitchcock is I Confess, which explores the conflict between conscience, confidentiality, and self preservation.)

This adaptation of the movie (which is already an adaptation of the book) dates from 2005. Barlow’s twist was to make a serious spy suspense movie into a comedy, and have all the parts played by only four actors. This means that the lead part is played by one, the three younger female parts are played by one, and the remaining two actors have to cover everyone else, man, woman, and child. In some productions, this can run to nearly 100 characters. As one might imagine, this requires lightning quick costume changes, and several scenes were the change of a hat alone changes the character.

The particular production that my wife and I went to see was a local one here in Bakersfield, at the Stars Theatre Restaurant, a local dinner theater which specializes primarily in musicals. The major draw for me was the fact that Kevin McDonald would be playing the lead part. I have mentioned his work at The Empty Space in You Can’t Take It With You as the uptight parent of the normal daughter’s love interest, and his outstanding turn as Malvolio in Twelfth Night.

Also in this production was Bethany Rowlee, playing Annabella, Pamela, and Margaret, and Bob Anderson and Bruce Saathoff playing everyone else. I hadn’t seen Saathoff in anything in quite some time, but I recall in my pre-kid days (late 1990s?) playing in the orchestra for a production of Hello Dolly in which he portrayed Cornelius. Good memories. 

Kevin McDonald, Bruce Saathoff, Bethany Rowlee, and Bob Anderson
Photo by Peter Beckman, Stars promotional photo. 

Anyway, all four members of the case were solid, and brought the requisite degree of physical comedy to a play that lacks enough witty dialogue to rely solely on that for laughs. This isn’t due to lack of skill on Barlow’s part, but is more because the original source contains more suspense and atmosphere than dialogue.

What Barlow does bring to the script is an abundance of clever references to other Hitchcock works, and careful and creative staging to bring out the humor of the multiple parts.

The story is something like O Henry in one of his darker moods might write: Richard Hannay, a nondescript Englishman with a pencil mustache (this is played for definite laughs) is at the theater, when a shot rings out. The beautiful and foreign woman next to him appears to be terrified, and talks him into taking her home for the night. She tells a tale of dangerous spies and a secret vital to national security. Hannay thinks she is crazy, and sleeps on the couch. Later in the night, she staggers in, morally stabbed, and warns him of “The 39 Steps” and a man missing part of a finger, and urges him to go to Scotland to save England.

The rest of the movie is spent with Hannay on the run from the police, who think he murdered the woman, while at the same time trying to foil the spies so he can clear his name. This was, of course, a fertile idea for suspense and thrills, as well as psychological drama. After all, the veneer of civilization is thin, as Hannay discovers when he must do things he would never have dreamed in order to stay alive. Likewise, few people are who they seem at first glance, from the fake “policemen” that work for the 39 Steps to the country bumpkin married to a ravishingly beautiful woman half his age. Hannay himself is unbelievable - except that he is telling the truth. So he has to tell lies because those are more plausible than what he has actually experienced and done.

The line, though, between thrill and suspense on the one hand, and comedy on the other, is fine indeed - the reason that spoof movies remain endlessly popular. Hannay’s journey is nothing if not ludicrous, and the sinister characters practically parody themselves. The distance of years, too, makes a difference. In 1935, Nazi Germany was on the rise, but the full extent of the threat and looming disaster for the world was not yet realized. But it was entirely plausible that German agents would seek to steal British technology. Here, from the safety of 2016, when “German” and “technology scandal” brings to mind not ruthless spies, but cheating auto emissions programmers, there is a whiff of the ridiculous to what was once deadly serious. And so the comedy fits.

In addition to the character changes, which were well executed and quite amusing, I must mention one joke that is perhaps specific to this production. Richard Hannay is described in the police bulletins as being dashingly handsome, about six feet tall, with dark hair and piercing blue eyes, and, let us not forget, “a very attractive pencil mustache.” But Hannay isn’t these things at all. Kevin McDonald does indeed sport the mustache, but he has lighter brown hair, is, well, not quite leading man material, and most importantly, is the shortest member of the cast by an obvious margin. As a “fun sized” guy myself, I sympathize. But it is quite hilarious to hear those attributes accompanied by McDonald hamming it up on the suave and dashing as he is described. Good fun.

I’ve said before that Bakersfield has a vibrant local theater scene for years, and this production was a good example. We are located close to Los Angeles and the Bay Area, and Utah is a mere day’s drive away. But don’t forget the local productions, intimate venues, and reasonable prices. There’s good stuff here too: you just have to get out and see it.


  1. I enjoy reading your posts about the Bakersfield theatre scene. I like the theatre too, but I don't remember there being much when I lived there. I think I attended a couple of plays at Cal State, but that's it. Maybe there weren't as many venues then, or I just wasn't aware of what was out there. I left in the early 90s and a lot to has changed since then. Also, the internet and social media make it easier tow know about events. When I first moved to San Francisco I would frequently hear negative comments when someone found out I had lived in Bakersfield. I grew tired hearing it referred to as a cultural backwater, so it's gratifying to know about the cultural opportunities that exist there. One day maybe I can coordinate a visit when the symphony is performing.

    1. My now wife and I got into local theater when we were dating. If my memory serves, Stars opened in the late 1990s, as an outgrowth of Bakersfield Music Theater (which I played for in my single days). The Empty Space is about 15 years old. Cal State and BC still put on student productions as well.

      We'd love to see you at the Symphony.