My favourite thing about Nida Butt plays is that there is always some kind of pretty young things having a swell time on the stage. As with Chicago and Mamma Mia, the 39 Steps is also a motley crew of four having a grand ol’ frolick and delivering some stellar performances. But as with most Nida Butt plays it is mostly style over substance.
The 39 Steps is a recreation of Alfred Hitchcock’s movie of the same name. I am sure the older generation was really enjoying it because quite a few kitty-party types were tittering about how good the cast was but the play overstayed its welcome. The comedy was long drawn out, the jokes were playing on stereotypes of gender, race, nationality and age, you know, your usual 1930s comedy tropes.
The plot: Richard Hannay is as bored in his Portland Place flat in 1935 like the social media generation is today. In a fit of wanting to break the monotony of his days he heads off to the theatre. And of course, a damsel in distress by the name of Annabelle Schmidt falls in his arms and embroils him in a dangerous plot involving murder, spies and a top secret “something” called “The 39 Steps.”
During the night, Annabella Schmidt is mysteriously murdered and Richard Hannay makes a daring escape. He is almost caught by the police several times but soon he finds himself at a mysterious place in the Scottish moors called Alt Na Shellac facing a dangerous enemy.
Nida Butt’s usual suspects, Faraz Lodhi and Sanam Saeed, returned for this venture and they were pretty good in their roles. The accents delivered here were much better than say, Kevin Costner’s in Robin Hood, because both Lodhi and Saeed are attuned to what their director wants from them.
But the bulk of the play was handled by the crazy antics of Zeeshan and Mohammad Ali Hashmi who played every role that required changing hats, gowns, accents and tones. One of the best scenes was in the train when Hannay is on the run and Zeeshan and Hashmi play a porter, a constable and a newspaper boy all with the change of three hats. The immense physicality of it was splendid to watch and one can only imagine how many hours of rehearsal it must have taken to get the hat juggling just right.
One of my favourite scenes was how a shadow puppet show was put on to show Hannay running on the moors. It was reminiscent of scenes in black and white movies which conveyed action and drama within huge budgetary and logistical constraints. The biplanes on sticks were especially amusing to watch.
The set design was spellbinding. Revolving doors and signs converted a flat into a barn into a motel, chairs turned into a car and trunks turned into a train bogey. Lighting, though a little clunky in parts, conveyed night and tension beautifully. Special shout out to the stage hands who were moving swiftly to change the props.
Costumes were period and designed by Amir Adnan so they had that top-quality feel to them. Zeeshan and Hashmi had many costume changes so there was a lot of attention to detail behind their many wigs and dresses.
Acting wise Saeed and Lodhi delivered but it really seemed like they did not have much to do in terms of physical comedy. That onus was carried by Zeeshan and Hashmi who were literally doing all the leg work.
At 2 hours with a 15-minute interval that turned into almost 20 minutes, this play was l-oooo-ng. Even its source material is 1 hour 26 minutes! Some of the gags and scenes were so unnecessary, I almost wished the play ended right there. Like the scene where Hannay finds himself as a candidate in an election and the elderly members of that community introduce him to give a speech. The stereotypical jokes of old people on their movements and slow speech was very painful and boring to watch. Even the audience was forcefully laughing because that scene was so trite. And like the Rabbit’s Foot in Mission Impossible 5, you never find out what the 39 Steps actually are. It is just a by the way aside that moves the plot forward but doesn’t end up being anything in the end.
One thing I appreciated was how little the sponsors interfered in product placement. The Pepsi-Cola was seamlessly integrated in one of the scenes. It is a relief that the theatre is where the corporate world hasn’t sunken its claws in, yet.
As with Chicago, Mamma Mia and Grease, Butt enjoys the process of bringing these nostalgia-filled movies and musicals to the stage. Her offerings are niche but then again her work is for a niche audience. In that vein, the 39 Steps was a fun albeit a long trip to the theatre.