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REVIEW: "Alfred Hitchcock's The 39 Steps" - Morgan-Wixson Theatre, Santa Monica

"... A Brilliant, Blinding Madcap Romp!"

This Friday evening, the esteemed Morgan-Wixson Theatre in Santa Monica is putting on quite a show! Continuing their fabulous run of “Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps,” into their second weekend with a jam-packed house, this classic theater delivers the goods with a caper like you wouldn’t believe!

Winner of two Tony Awards, a Drama Desk Award, and the Laurence Olivier Award in 2007, “Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps” is a mile-a-minute cheeky farce based on the Hitchcock film and the John Buchan novel of the same name.

It’s a highly physical satire featuring the dashing Richard Hannah, hero extraordinaire, in the midst of train chases, plane crashes, shadowy spies, and even a love story of sorts. Makes you knackered just watching our young globetrotter jump through windows, hang to the top of trains and barely escape espionage agents posing as Scotland Yard inspectors, all the while wooing every attractive lady in sight. Self-described as an ordinary 37 year old, well educated, rich, English gentleman with a pencil moustache, that description is amended later when on the run as, “slightly more rugged-looking, which makes him look even better looking than he did before.”

So, get ready for nonstop action, and belly laughs galore in one of the most inventive comedies of the 21st century, now playing through February 10th at Morgan-Wixson Theatre, Directed by Aric Martin, a Julliard School of Drama alumni, who you may have seen most recently on the MWT stage starring in the award winning audience favorite, “She Loves Me.”

Wait! Did you say Alfred Hitchcock? …Righto Mate! Originally from the mind of John Buchan, a former union organizer, lecturer, author, successful politician and King George the Fifth’s Lord High Commissioner to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, a work of this nature seems a little unexpected. Somehow, however, with all that on his plate, he managed in 1915 to click off what he is mostly known for – an adventure novel aptly called “The 39 Steps.” Buchan then went on to develop a whole series of novels featuring the fortuitous but debonair hero, Richard Hannay.

Then, seeing a good thing, the sometimes eccentric Hollywood director and “Master of Suspense,” Alfred Hitchcock, quintessential director of the thriller genre with a career spanning 60 years, became interested in developing a film.

His most famous version in 1935, “The 39 Steps,” is now known as one of the best British farce films of all time. His movie and Buchan's novel series formed the basis for a number of other film adaptations in 1959 and 1978, and then a British television version in 2008.

With one part Monty Python and one part heart-stopping noir thriller, “Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps” is Patrick Barlow’s 2005 hysterical stage adaptation of both Buchan’s classic novel and Hitchcock’s hit spy thriller film. The play's concept calls for the entirety of the 1935 adventure film to be performed with a cast of only four. Set in 1930’s London, the story is a classic portrayal of a man wrongly accused of murder through a series of improbable adventures as he is pursued by authorities, getting in and out of one sticky situation after another. It’s cloak and dagger, quite literally.

One actor plays the hero, Richard Hannay; an actress plays the three women with whom he has romantic entanglements, and two other actors (Tristan Griffin and Mikael Mattsson) called Clowns, altogether play over 150 characters in the show: heroes, villains, men, women, children and even the occasional inanimate object. This often requires lightning fast quick-changes with occasional multiple characters played all at once using various accents and dialects, including Scottish, Cockney, British, and German. Thus the film's serious spy story is played mainly for laughs, with the script full of allusions to other Hitchcock films, including "Strangers on a Train," "Rear Window," "Psycho," "Virtigo" and "North by Northwest." It’s fast-paced fun, thrilling action and riotous invention.

Here’s the abridged version from police logs:

It seems the painfully British and devastatingly handsome former intelligence officer, Richard Hannay (Christopher Tiernan), a man with a stiff upper lip and a pencil moustache, is attending a London theatre out of sheer boredom, watching the remarkable powers of “Mr. Memory,” a man with a photographic memory, when a fight breaks out and shots are fired.

In the ensuing panic, he finds himself in the clutches of a beautiful German woman, Anabella Schmidt (Genevieve Kennedy), who later reveals herself as a spy. She has uncovered a plot to steal British military secrets called “The 39 Steps” by the mastermind of a secret intelligence group who has part of his trigger finger missing. She has been instructed to contact an Englishman in a place called ‘Alt na shellach’ in Scotland to solve the mystery, but before explaining further, she is stabbed to death in his flat clutching a map of Scotland.

Gobsmacked, Hannay manages to sneak out of his flat, disguised as a milkman and takes a train to Scotland, but discovers the police are on his trail. In desperation, he enters a compartment and kisses the attractive Pamela (also Ms. Kennedy) in an attempt to escape detection, who betrays him to the law.

He panics and runs, jumping through windows, hanging to the top of the train, jumping from car to car, barely escaping spies hot on his trail, who unbeknownst to him, are posing as Scotland Yard inspectors. Finally jumping from the train, Hannay escapes, crosses the moors and finds a farm house where he stays the night with a cantankerous old farmer and his gorgeous wife, Margaret. She flirts openly with her houseguest, enraging her husband.

Early the next morning, once again being pursued, Hannay barely escapes again with Margaret's help by wearing the farmer’s Sunday coat as a disguise. Running back out on the moors, a plane tries to chase him down (North By Northwest), but he once again slips away. Appearing at a door with the sign “Alt na shellac,” he finds the man with the missing finger joint, the ostensibly respectable Professor Jordan, who, Bob’s your uncle, systematically shoots him and leaves him for dead.

In Act Two, we find Hannay in the Sherriff’s office, saved from the bullet by a prayer-book in his jacket pocket. The Sherriff and the Chief Inspector try to arrest him on suspicion, but Hannay jumps through a window and escapes the rozzers into the crowd.

Everything then gets a bit pear-shaped. As he maneuvers his way into a political meeting, he’s mistaken for the keynote speaker, and gives a rousing impromptu speech. Pamela, however, is in that same crowd and recognizes our hero, who gives him up once more, thinking he’s a dangerous criminal. They are handcuffed together and taken away by a couple of dodgy rascals impersonating the “police.”

Hannay soon realizes they are agents of the conspiracy and when the car is forced to stop, he escapes again, dragging an unwilling Pamela along. They travel cross country, and stay the night at an inn. While he sleeps, she slips out of the handcuffs, and eavesdrops on one of the fake policemen who is on the telephone downstairs. Realizing his innocence, she tells Hannay what she heard the next morning, and it is all somehow connected to The London Palladium. Leaving Pamela, Hannay sets off for London.

At the theatre, he discovers the smarmy Professor Jordan sitting in a loge. Pamela suddenly appears behind him, but can do nothing without proof. Mr. Memory’s show is introduced and Hannay recognizes the annoyingly catchy tune he hasn’t been able to forget for days. In that moment, he realizes that Mr. Memory is how the spies are smuggling the secrets out: he has them memorized.

The police arrive at the theatre to arrest Hannay, but in the fracas, he shouts out a question about the 39 Steps. When Mr. Memory compulsively begins to answer, Professor Jordan shoots him and tries to flee, but is apprehended. And just before the dying Mr. Memory pops his clogs, he recites the information stored in his brain, which is a secret design for silent aircraft. Vindicated, our hero Hannay and Pamela stroll off, hand in hand.

What a fun time at the theatre! Honestly, the actors are first-rate master performers. I doubt if casting could have ever been better. Mr. Griffin and Mr. Mattsson are simply remarkable – beyond words. Ms. Kennedy deserves much praise for being able to assume three personalities in the same show, and Mr. Tiernan is the ultimate consummate performer. This show is Highly Recommended!

Produced by Larry Gesling, and Technically Directed by William Wilday, Kristie Mattsson managed Costume Design as well as Directorial Assistance to Director Martin. Set Design and Lighting is also by Mr. Wilday, Sound is by Greg Rutledge with Assist by Geena Wong. Publicity is Miriam Billington and Stage Manager is Ashley DeFrancesco with Assist by Kalila Horwitz.

"Alfred Hitchcock's The 39 Steps" runs Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm and Sundays at 2pm, January 19th through February 10th. Tickets are $23 for adults and $20 for students/seniors. The Morgan-Wixson is located at 2627 Pico Blvd., Santa Monica.

Call 310-828-7519 or visit

Chris Daniels

Arts Reviewer


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