There are certain things you expect of a traditionally British comedy. Cross-dressing is an obvious one, alongside repressed homoeroticism. Jokes about the Scottish accent, absurd politeness (such as mild swearing as a response to getting shot), and wonderful costuming (such as a man dressed as four sheep) are likewise part of the rich set of cultural tropes.
In this regard, ElevenOne Theatre's production of John Buchan and Alfred Hitchcock's The 39 Steps does not disappoint. It is delightfully silly in its modern reimaging of an old favourite.
Confused but rugged man, Richard Hannay (Tim Younger) meets Annabelle Schmidt (Bayley Eyley), a mysterious woman of an apparently indefinable nationality with connections to an underground spy ring. From this point on, his life is in grave danger.
The play is a head spinning romp. The plot twists as the meaning of each scene is turned on its head. The presentation of the play reflects the thematic chaos – cast members rush on, off, and around the stage and at certain points they rushedly change hats and costumes to denote a change of character. The effect is bewildering at first, but soon adds to the frenzy and intrigue of the plot.
The staging is likewise inventive, making clever and fun use of model trains and aeroplanes as well as shadows.
The 39 Steps demands a lot from the small cast – five people played about 35 characters – and the demand was handled beautifully. Helen Kavanagh gave a standout performance; as a woman cast to play predominantly male roles, she inhabited the relaxed masculine stance convincingly. The cast work particularly well together, nailing the comedic timing beautifully.
The use of music, sound effects and lighting were noticeably apt. It added dimensionality to an already robust play to hear and see the impacts of events. In some cases, the effects also added to the comedy of the play, such as hearing bleating sheep.