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39 Steps Review

Mystery & Melodrama at the Barn

Address: The Barn, 30 Sir Francis Drake Blvd.
Ross, CA 94957
Phone: 415-456-9555  ext. 1

The 39 Steps

Ross Valley Players—Mystery and Melodrama at The Barn

(l. to r.) Robyn Grahn, Michael Monagle, Sean Garahan and Andre Amarotico in Ross Valley Players' production of Patrick Barlow's The 39 Steps.

Review: Judith M. Wilson

Photographs: Robin Jackson

The 39 Steps is good fun. Based on a book that John Buchan wrote in 1915, the play is about a man who goes out for a night of entertainment at a London music hall, but unwittingly gets entangled in an espionage plot and ends up wrongly accused of murder. The story might sound familiar, because Alfred Hitchcock’s 1935 film shares the same name and is based on the same book. His movie was a suspense-filled thriller, however, while the play takes a different approach. When Patrick Barlow wrote a new adaption for the stage in 2005, based on a concept by Simon Corbie and Nobby Dimon, he completely reinvented the story, keeping the mystery, but spoofing the genre and playing it for laughs. Barlow’s was a hit that played in London’s West End for nine years, and it has won numerous honors, including two Tony Awards. It’s clever and funny, and the Ross Valley Players are making the most of it in their current production at The Barn.

Although the play has a multitude of diverse characters, its cast has only four actors, so it’s a marvel of rapid changes. While some involve switching costumes remarkably quickly, others tackle the transitions differently, sometimes with a simple change of accent. The accents aren’t always perfect, but they’re effective, because they’re an easy way for the audience to follow the changes and keep up with the action.  A small cast with so many roles might be a challenge, but it all works, and director Adrian Elfenbaum credits the cast members, who got together for the first time about a month before the play’s opening. “It’s a wonderful collaboration,” he says.

Michael Monagle plays Richard Hannay, who starts as a man innocently enjoying a show featuring Mr. Memory, but suddenly finds himself as a man on the run after trying to help a woman who claims to be a spy and introduces him to the mystery of the 39 Steps. He’s on-stage virtually the whole time, interacting with the other characters in different ways—perplexed, angry, and sometimes desperate —as he tries to figure out how to prove his innocence and get out of his predicament. In one scene, he steps into the role of a politician and whips up the fervor of the crowd just like an evangelist, with organ music to underscore the comparison, even though he has nothing of substance to say.

Robin Grahn, an RVP favorite plays, three distinctly different roles, Annabella Schmidt, the secret agent who sets the story into motion; Margaret, a Scottish sheep farmer’s young wife, who lusts after Hannay; and Pamela, a sophisticated city dweller who first crosses paths with Hannay on a train and is less than pleased with the encounter.

Sean Garahan and Andre Amarotico, who are listed as Clown/Man #1 and Clown/Man #2 respectively in the program, play roles too numerous to mention—close to 150—displaying considerable speed and precision, as well as spot-on comic timing. The play includes a wealth of references to Hitchcock’s films, ranging from a trip north by northwest to Scotland to a flock of birds swooping down, and Amarotico plays a particularly creepy character reminiscent of Norman Bates in Psycho, putting a comic spin on malicious intent.

Ron Krempetz has created a versatile set to allow easy transitions, as the action moves from the music hall to Hannay’s apartment, to a train, to the Scottish highlands and more, all while Hannay tries to find the meaning and solve the mystery of the 39 Steps. Billie Cox’s sound design adds to the atmosphere, with suspense-building music in key scenes and period songs prior to the show. Tina Johnson’s lighting design plays a crucial role in a scene at the London Palladium involving Mr. Memory, played by Amarotico.

Elfenbaum’s deft directing pulls it all together to create an engaging evening of theatre that takes a well-worn classic and makes it fresh and new. It includes the mistaken identities and mishaps of farce, tips its hat to a master of suspense and pokes fun at a popular genre while retaining its elements. It’s a remake that’s in good hands at The Barn. RVP offers a well-honed, polished performance, and it’s a fine finish to its 87th season.


The 39 Steps plays Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings and Sunday afternoons through August 20. Talkbacks, in which the audience gets to meet the director and actors after the matinée performance, take place on July 23 and August 13.

For more information, visit www.rossvalleyplayers.com. To order tickets, visit the website or call 415-456-9555, ext. 1.