AN OUTSTANDING SPOOF OF "THE 39  STEPS" Continues the 50th Season of TheatreWorks

By Iride Aparicio

Photos by: Kevin Berne

PALO ALTO, CA -- The history  of  the writing of  "The 39  Steps,"  the seventeenth book of Scottish writer JOHN BUCHAN, is as interesting as the events that he writes about in his thriller novel.  He started his novel by creating a convoluted plot: the personal/political drama of a Canadian man living in London, who is accused of the murder, he did not commit, of  a counter-espionage agent.

His problem starts when the map, that he retrieved from the dead woman's hands, implicates him with an organization of spies, called "The 39 Steps," who are trying to steal the British Military secrets. So, with his life being  threatened by the spies who are trying to kill him, our hero is forced to run away from London and try to get to Scotland to prove his innocence. In the process,  he faces so many inconceivable  life-threatening adventures, that they are unlikely to  happen to anyone.

In l914 when BUCHAN was struggling to complete his novel, he was very ill and confined as a patient in a nursing home in Scotland. But since his mind was fresh, he just continued to add new twists in his new umpublished novel. So it is no wonder that he described it as "my first shocker"


BUCHAN's action-adventure was published as a serial in  Blackwood's Magazine  in August and  September of  the year 1915 and it was such a hit that it was published in book form by WILLIAM BLACKWOOD AND SONS, Edinburgh in October.

In l935,  "The 39 steps" attracted English film director and producer Sir ALFRED HITCHCOK, (l899-l980)  regarded as one of the most influential filmmakers in the history of cinema.  He scripted the novel, redefined the characters, added females to the cast, and directed his version in a Black-and-White film. His adaptation was ranked as "the second-best book-to-film adaptation of all time. His  film version as  "The fourth best British film of the 20th Century"  by the British Film Institute.  TOTAL FILM named it "The 21st greatest British movie ever made. The film was followed by two color remakes  (l959/l978) and  new version of the story in  British television in 2008. What happened to the story after that?

L-R Mrs. McGarrigle (RON CAMPBEL) Mr. McGarrigle (CASSIDY BROWN) are surprised by hotel's guests  (ANNIE ABRAMS) and  (LANCE GARDNER)

In "Hitchcock's The 39 Steps " (as the English film was called in the United States) there are  many scenes' changes and lots of actors playing the different roles, but in what one may consider impossible to accomplish, in 2006, EVAN GEORGE PATRICK BARLOW, an English Actor, comedian and Playwright, and the Founder and Artistic Director and Chief Executive of the Two-man National Theatre of Brent, wrote a comic theatrical adaptation of Hitchock's "The 39 STEPS" to be performed on the stage by four actors (one woman and three men).


Yes. TheatreWorks Silicon Valley continued its 50th Anniversary Season with BARLOW's  Olivier Award winning comedy, "The 39 Steps" directed by LESLIE MARTINSON and acted by four formidable actors who with rapid changes of  wigs, clothes, accents and demeanor managed to portrait all the men and women's roles perfectly.


The actors are:  LANCE GARDNER, playing Richard Hannay.  ANNIE ABRAMS, playing: Annabella Schmidt/Pamela and Margaret.  CASSIDY BROWN, playing Mr. Memory, the Crofter and many others and RON CAMPBELL playing the Compere, the Professor, Jordan/and many others.

As actors playing comedy, the four actors were believable in each one of their different  roles. In his role as Hannay, GARDNER plays all the action: The running, the jumping from trains, the scaping from rooms by crashing windows and the hiding under the waterfalls.

The three others play all the other roles. so it may require that some of them do changes over one hundred times per performance. For the audience, it was fascinating to watch the character's complete change in demeanor, in accents, when to listening to them and in looks. We should add that for those three actors to actually be able to convince the audience  that they were different characters require complete mastery in acting.  On the  Sunday Matinee performance  following the show's  Opening night, the enthusiastic audience had nothing but high praises for everyone of  them. The show ended with a long standing ovation.

Another winner in this production is Scenic Designer DAVID LEE CUTHBERT, who by using the Proscenium of a theatre as a set, and placing trunks, around it to keep the props and costumes out of sight, and a little imagination on the part of the audience, turn into moving cars, the inside of the train's cars, rocks, buildings, and different  pieces of furniture,

The magic was created by lighting and projections (Lighting design STEVEN B MANNSHARDT) who added flying airplanes on the set and even the image of Director  HITCHCOCK (who had a cameo in all his films) We also must mention  costume designer CATHLEEN EDWARDS. who may have faced a design challenge while designing the costumes with a "distinct look"  for each different character, and must be easy to throw on and off  in a second while the characters may be on the stage. Added to her challenge may have been the fact that the costumes should represent the styles of 1935 Scotland/London where the action of the play is set. (See Radio announcers below)

TW_The39Steps_KevinBerne7.jpgWritten on her notes in the program, play's director LESLIE MARTINSON describes her experience  by imagining that we all are in the venerable music hall in England in the year 1935 and that tonight, the traveling theatre troupes arrive in town with their trunks full of costumes and props. only to find the theatre dark and deserted. The costumes have arrived, but not the rest of the cast. But the show must go on. So the actors must use ladders and racks found on the wings to do the scenery and the four people will play all the roles.  It is a marvelous allegory.
And  here we should add that as Director,  MARTISON  was also  able to "convert"   three of those people into many different characters.

We will end our review of this outstanding TheatreWorks' spoof of "The 39 Steps" by answering a question that the audience  have been asking for years.



The reason was revealed by BUCHAN's son  in one of the many interviews he gave  in  February 1940 after his father's death.  He told his interviewers that the name of the novel went back to 1914, when his sister was  six year old and was learning to count.

"Playing on the beach, located behind the rest home where she was visiting our sick father in Scotland, she entertained herself by counting the steps of a wooden stair-case, in the back of the rest home, leading from the building down to the beach. One afternoon, my sister ran into my father's room and announced to my father, proudly,  that she had counted the steps, and that they were thirty nine.  

He added to the story  that many years later, when the rest home  house was closed and its building demolished, a section of the thirty nine wooden steps, with a brass plaque, had been sent to his father.

If not only for the marvelous story of "The 39 Steps, " which originated "escapism" in entertaiment, this TheatreWorks' production  is a Must See to any one interested in theatricality. It presents it, at its best.

"The 39 Steps" will continue at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St., Mountain View, CA 94041 until September 22, 2019. For information or to order tickets call (650) 463-1960 or go online to theatergoers.