Hitchcock’s ‘The 39 Steps’ steps lively from screen to international stages
NEW YORK – Among Alfred Hitchcock’s pre-Hollywood films, “The 39 Steps” from 1935 is widely considered to be among his best and the one in which the director perfected his famed “Macguffin” (the largely undefined plot device around which the story seems to revolve).
While Hitchcock’s works from his British filmmaking days – ranging from “Blackmail” to “The Lodger” and from “The Man Who Knew Too Much” to “The Lady Vanishes” – amply attest to man’s budding genius, “The 39 Steps” has uniquely expanded Hitch’s reach and taken on a life of its own in venues beyond the silver screen.
In 2006 on London’s West End, playwright Patrick Barlow unveiled an inspired stage version of the old spy tale (it and Hitchcock’s film were adapted from a 1915 novel by John Buchan) in which the thrills were played for laughs and all roles were frantically preformed by a cast of four actors.
“The 39 Steps” on stage essentially follows Hitchcock’s film story verbatim. One actor plays the hero, Richard Hannay, one actress plays the three women with whom he has romantic entanglements, and two other actors perform as every other character in the story – good guys, villains, men, women, children and even the odd inanimate object. This generally requires quick costume changes, ingenious staging and sleight-of-hand acting in which one performer occupies two or more roles at once. The script is packed with puns and clever allusions to other Hitchcock films, including “Rear Window,” “Psycho” and “North By Northwest.”
The zany play was a quick hit in London, and in 2008 a version crossed the Atlantic and opened in Boston at the Huntington Theatre Company. Soon after, it moved to Broadway, where it enjoyed a successful run, first at the Roundabout Theater, then at the Cort and finally at the Helen Hayes. In London, the play won the Olivier Award for Best Comedy of 2007, and in New York it received the 2008 Drama Desk Award for Unique Theatrical Experience.
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