REVIEW: The 39 Steps

Glenn McCarthy, David Lequerica and Matthew Palmer in The 39 Steps, performing at PIMPAC until 27 July 2019. PHOTO: Gary Harvey

We’ve been spoilt for choice with contemporary theatre pieces throughout the inaugural Northern Fringe Festival, with Princesses Prom Night and Astronomical 2 both hitting the stage for the first time earlier in the month and Michael Sams’ The Specialists set to premiere later this week – but lovers of classic pieces are in luck as well, with Townsville Little Theatre bringing to life the stage adaptation of Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps from tonight.

The British farce, following protagonist Richard Hannay (Matthew Palmer) as he flees police across the UK following a murder he didn’t commit, features an incredible number of characters throughout the performance – all embodied by just five actors. The changing of characters – happening both on and off stage – adds to the hilarity of the farce, involving everything from entirely new costumes and wigs to a simple swapping of hats mid-scene.

As Hannay, Matthew Palmer doesn’t have a moment of rest. I believe I counted less than a minute in the entire production that he wasn’t performing, with a majority of scene changes also featuring his character running across stage to escape capture. Matthew is brooding, quick-witted, and has the stamina of an athlete – I would have had a stitch midway through Act One.

David Lequerica, as one of the show’s three quick-changing ‘clowns’, will have you questioning why he hasn’t performed in more TLT performances before. Taking on every role thrown his way from a deep-voiced Scottish hotel owner to a sassy and seductive flapper dancer, David’s comedic timing and willingness to give each character 110% earnt him the most laughs of the show, and was a true standout.

Equally seductive but with a much thinner moustache was Jessie DeVine, another of the clowns who bent genders faster than you would think possible. Jessie is to be commended for the fastest character changing and line deliveries in the show, in what I’m sure will be many audience members’ favourite scene.

Matthew Palmer as Richard Hannay in Townsville Little Theatre’s The 39 Steps. PHOTO: Gary Harvey

The last of the clowns, Glenn McCarthy, managed to maintain a heartfelt character arc even after switching personas – his window and door interactions will have you wishing he could live happily ever after with Hannay, no matter what hat (or wig) he’s wearing. Glenn’s accents in particular were hilarious, with everything from dumb cop to innocent blonde down pat.

Rounding out the cast, Sarah Mathiesen plays Hannay’s attached-at-the-wrist love interest, Pamela. Seeing two characters interact in such close proximity while one of them very visibly detests the other is farcical in itself, and gives rise to a number of heated, awkward, funny and sensual moments between the pair. It was incredibly difficult not to like Matthew during the performance, but Sarah made the task look easy, and was testament to the physicality of the production with an acrobatic number or two handled with ease.

Jessie DeVine, David Lequerica and Matthew Palmer in The 39 Steps. PHOTO: Gary Harvey

There were some incredibly fast-paced scenes within the production, which also turned out to be the funniest of the play – however in other areas, the show slowed considerably and lost the chase momentum built up by the speed of other scenes, character changes, and the soundtrack; losing the potential for further laughs. Which is an incredible shame because when the cast were on, they were on – with everything from a confrontation between a Scottish hotel owner and a policeman to a fight on the roof of a train serving punch after punch of humour. I can’t wait to see all the extra punches delivered tonight with technical plots ironed out and an opening night audience eager to laugh.

The utilisation of props throughout the performance was both a highlight and a point to consider – whether a prop is there or not, making the audience believe it is there is part of the magic of theatre. Matthew did this incredibly well in one of the opening scenes, tugging at the invisible hilt of a knife vigourously enough that I had no doubt it was there. Yet in other scenes if props faltered or were missing, they only existed when it suited characters – at one point, two characters’ wrists were closely bound, yet moments later they would make elaborate and distant gestures giving away the fact that their hands were not physically cuffed. This is something that will be overcome as props are finetuned before tonight’s launch, however I applaud Matthew for his dedicated knife-miming.

Sarah Mathiesen, David Lequerica, Glenn McCarthy and Jessie Devine each play a series of characters in The 39 Steps. PHOTO: Gary Harvey

Congratulations to Director Sonia Zabala and Co-Director Samuel Audas-Ryan for a performance of The 39 Steps that is all yours: with clever and adaptable set design and character selection for each cast member adding to the absurdity of the farce, the audience is left questioning what will happen next as each new outlandish scene begins.

Townsville Little Theatre’s The 39 Steps runs at Pimlico Performing Arts Centre until Saturday, 27 July. For performance times and tickets, click here.

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