Theater Review: THE 39 STEPS (Scripps Ranch Theatre)

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by Milo Shapiro on November 4, 2023

in Theater-Regional,Theater-San Diego


In 1935, Alfred Hitchcock released his spy thriller film The 39 Steps to much acclaim. Robert Donat played Richard Hannay, the handsome and dashing man who stumbles, purely by accident, into a crazy situation where he must save England from ruthless spies stealing military secrets. Adding to his woes in trying to save his nation, he is mistakenly accused of the murder of a counter-espionage agent, so he is on the lam as he tries to right this injustice. The film was outstanding for its time. Orson Welles referred to it as a “masterpiece” and screenwriter Robert Towne (Chinatown) remarked, “It’s not much of an exaggeration to say that all contemporary escapist entertainment begins with The 39 Steps.”


In preparation for seeing the stage version at Scripps Ranch Theater, I viewed the film for the first time. It’s clear why it was a breakthrough for 1935 and, viewed in that context, it’s exceptional. In terms of being a thriller, though, it’s somewhat lacking compared to what’s been released in the nearly ninety years since. The plot itself feels rather corny and some of the dialogue, though clever, lands stiffly. Thus, I entered SRT with some trepidation that it was going to transfer well to the stage, especially lacking Bernard Knowles’ cinematography, amazing for its day.


Had adapter Patrick Barlow tried to imitate John Buchan‘s screenplay, his chance of success would have been iffy. Happily, Barlow gives us instead a delightful farcical version in which silliness beautifully replaces precision. The result is terrific. Little touches from the film are duplicated in playful ways: When a farmer spies on his wife and Hannay together, the farmer ludicrously gawks at them through a window he is carrying.


Much of the credit to the outlandishness working belongs to director Phil Johnson, who has established himself in San Diego with numerous productions where lunacy rules and yet come together entertainingly. Admittedly, I had failed to look at the playbill before the show started and found myself thinking during Act I, This feels like a Phil Johnson production. Which is a good thing.


As for the cast, Marley Bauer exaggerates the dry delivery of Robert Donat to create a humorously charismatic Hannay, somewhere between David Niven and Peter Sellers. Melanie Mino nails the dark spy Annabella, the kind-hearted Margaret who sees the good in him, and unfortunate do-gooder Pamela who gets dragged into Hannay’s antics.


Perhaps the greatest asset to the show is that all of the many other characters are portrayed with exceptional gusto by Katelyn Slater and Chris Braden, who are aptly listed in the program as Clown 1 and Clown 2. Though the actor bios don’t say so specifically, they certainly appear to have studied clownsmanship. In multiple characters, it’s not simply quick-changing Caprice Shirley‘s costumes with a re-entry — they are sometimes switching mid-scene. A favorite moment is when Slater and Braden portray an argument between four people; the two repeatedly drop their trench coats half way down their back to reveal pajamas and then pull the coat back on to switch back.

I did find myself questioning how the show would work for those who hadn’t seen the film, but my companion, who had never heard of the movie before, was quite entertained. Still, if you’re thinking of going, I recommend watching it (free on Tubi) to fully enjoy how Barlow, Johnson, and this great team of four bring it to life.

photos by Ken Jacques

The 39 Steps
Scripps Ranch Theatre on the campus of Alliant International University
9783 Avenue of Nations in San Diego
Fri, Sat and Sun schedule varies; click here to check calendar
(Industry night Mon, Nov. 6 at 7:30)
ends on November 19, 2023
for tickets, call 858.578.7728 or visit Scripps Ranch Theatre

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