It is difficult to imagine Alfred Hitchcock’s 'The 39 Steps' clothed in sheer humour, but that is precisely what the theatre group, Evam, and the television house, Radaan, did recently in Chennai. Based on Patrick Barlow’s stage adaptation of John Buchan’s 1915 novel and Hitchcock’s 1935 film, the play thrilled and tickled audiences. Wittily narrating a spy story set in pre-war England is no mean task, but the Chennai production managed that admirably.
Just premiering in India, “The 39 Steps” was first performed at Broadway and West End in mid-2000. Four actors roll in and out of nearly 140 parts. Sunil Vishnu and T.M. Karthik Srinivasan portray a mindboggling number of characters, including inanimate. They become lakes, vines, creepers, trees and bushes, when they are not policemen, rail passengers, newspaper boys or evil men brandishing guns. And the two actors get this right, sometimes simply by changing their hats, as we saw in a scene on a train. A large toy-train is pushed along the edge of the stage, while the actors behind it sway to and fro to the hooting of the steam engine all to convey – sometimes dramatically – the setting.
There are more such moments of imagination, so necessary in a theatrical adaptation. Most props were on wheels, and door-frames were moved around to indicate a million situations. Actors would be inside warm indoors when the frames decide to walk away leaving the men shivering in cold. Window frames did even better. They helped actors escape. Sometime they would slip the frames over their heads and step out of them to run away from danger and disaster!
Renu Abraham plays three women, all getting romantically involved with the hero of the story, Richard Hannay, splendidly enacted by Navin Balachandran. Unlike the others, he does not have multiple roles, but that did not take away the fact that he was just as marvellous. It was a delight to watch him as the innocent man caught in a web of deceit and crime. Unwittingly involved in a plot to steal British military secrets, Hannay’s run-for-his life - chased by cops and spies, seduced by pretty women and nearly killed by a bullet - grips your attention.
Perfect timing, great lighting and wonderful music topped by exceptional acting made 'The 39 Steps' truly great theatre.