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[Review] The 39 Steps by Asylum Theatre

By Carolyn Fu

The young company Asylum Theatre, not even a year old, returns this year with its second production, The 39 Steps. This follows their highly successful maiden run of Holiday in my Head, which this magazine particularly enjoyed.

The 39 Steps is a perfect choice for a fledgling company. Adapted by Patrick Barlow in 2006 and having played to much acclaim on West End and Broadway since, the distinguishing feature of the play is its ensemble of four actors who scurry haphazardly about a minimal set to recreate Alfred Hitchcock’s original spy thriller of the same name — rendering it into pure comedy instead.

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The tone is set right away by the theatre’s raggedy, half-sewn curtains (complete with whimsical patchwork) which declare that this hodgepodge spy adventure has no intention of taking itself seriously. We open on Richard Hannay (played with endearing charm by Andrew Mowatt), who is a war veteran seeking renewed excitement and meaning in life. He soon gets what he asks for as he runs into Victoria Mintey’s beguiling but doomed secret agent, and finds himself entangled in a cascade of sticky situations there on out, trying to clear his name of her murder while unraveling a mysterious spy ring known as the 39 Steps.

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The story travels from England to Scotland, from city to countryside, but with essentially nothing more than a cast of four and a set composed of ladders, chairs and wardrobes, the result is delicious physical comedy. The actors play this to the hilt, clambering exaggeratedly onto a ladder that has now become a bridge, or flapping clothing to serve as their own wind machines as they escape from a train carriage. It is in these scenes that Tim Garner and Paul Lucas in particular (as the multipurpose characters Man #1 and Man #2) prove their gift for physicality, where their simple bobbing up and down on a seat puts you immediately into the scene of a moving train, or where their hunched backs and wobbly knees add an easy 50 years.

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In director (and also Artistic Director of the theatre) Dean Lundquist’s reading, the concept of the piece is that the actor playing Hannay is ambitiously attempting a stage adaptation of Hitchcock’s film, but “he hasn’t enough money, sets, props or actors to really do a proper job.” As such the piece has a delightful quality of self-deprecation, where the actors break the fourth wall when they realise they have no ‘car’ and quickly assemble one from available chairs, or where wisps of Garner’s chest hair peek out of the cardigan of the granny he’s playing.

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However, despite these promising comedic ingredients, I unfortunately found myself laughing somewhat less than I had hoped. I thought there was perhaps an over reliance on physical comedy, such that the moments without them felt awkward and hurried. The quieter scenes between Hannay and his growing love interest come across as superfluous, and the antagonist reveals his true nature almost before I had the time to be surprised. The effect was that the piece often rushed towards its punch lines, like a child too eager to tell a joke for the first time. It could have perhaps slowed down in areas before building to each comedic peak, as comedy is as much about the lows as it is the highs.

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All in all however, the piece is a great choice to showcase Asylum Theatre’s talented ensemble, where not only the actors can display their solid skills, but the direction, sound and lighting can rise to the fore. It is clear they have much potential, and I look forward to seeing how the company will grow.

E V E N T   D E T A I L S

The 39 Steps
By Asylum Theatre

Date: 23 April-10 May 2015
Time: 8pm, 3pm (Sat & Sun)
Venue: National Library, Drama Centre Blackbox
Admission: S$35 – 42 (from Sistic)

Image credits: Crispian Chan 

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